By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Mary Sommers reflects on her 30-year career at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, she doesn’t even mention her individual achievements or professional accolades.
Instead, she talks about the students and their moments of success. The longtime director of financial aid can share countless stories about Lopers like Joel, a first-generation student from an immigrant family who was thinking about leaving school because his parents couldn’t afford to cover the costs.
Sommers kept his dream alive by accessing a scholarship fund through the University of Nebraska Foundation that supported his education through graduation. When Joel received his degree, he was able to meet the donor who established the scholarship and express his gratitude.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” said Sommers, who cherishes these interactions with students and proud parents more than any honor or award.
“Those conversations are incredibly rewarding,” she said, “to have those personal experiences where I’ve been able to celebrate the success of a student.”
Now, Joel is a school counselor who will inspire the next generation of Nebraskans, and Sommers is starting a new chapter in her life after three decades of passionate advocacy for UNK students and their families.
“I feel truly blessed that I’ve been able to have a lot of one-on-one relationships with students over the course of my career and support our staff in really stepping forward to help students stay in college by providing some exceptional funding for them through the resources that we have available,” said Sommers, who retired this week.
A Columbus native, Sommers never saw herself working in higher education early in her professional career.
She graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in broadcast journalism, then landed a job at a radio station in Wichita, Kansas.
“I had an aspiration to always be in broadcast journalism. I loved working in radio because of the immediacy,” said Sommers, who handled the afternoon traffic reports, general assignment reporting and evening news broadcasts.
After a stint in Sioux City, Iowa, she moved to Billings, Montana, for her final radio station gig. That’s when she decided to use her communication skills in another field.
Sommers was hired as an admissions counselor at Rocky Mountain College before cross-training to support the financial aid office. When the financial aid director left for another opportunity, she was offered that position.
“I fell in love with the work,” Sommers said. “It was a lot of fun and I felt like my skills as a journalist were very transferrable.”
She also loved living in Montana; however, “I got to the point where I felt like I had exhausted a lot of my professional opportunities at that small, little school, and I felt like I needed more education, so I was starting to look for graduate programs in higher education.”
UNK’s financial aid director at the time, Pat McTee, was creating a position for someone who would work directly with admissions and new student recruitment. Sommers knew she could pursue a master’s degree in educational administration at UNK while working there, so she moved back to Nebraska in 1992.
“A lot of things about the mission of UNK were really appealing to me,” she said. “Kearney State College always had a great reputation of serving rural Nebraska, and I had friends from high school who came to college here and had great experiences.
“Joining the University of Nebraska System, which happened right before I came to work here, was certainly a factor that helped me feel like the institution was not satisfied with the status quo and always wanted to change.”
Although she had other opportunities over the years, Sommers remained at UNK, advancing from financial aid counselor to assistant director, associate director and eventually director of financial aid in 2000. She and husband Matt raised two children in Kearney. Their son Sam works for the U.S. Forest Service in Wyoming and daughter Sarah attends graduate school at New York University in New York City.
“I was very fortunate to be able to stay here, continue to advance in my career and grow as a professional and as a person,” Sommers said.
Sommers calls the UNK Financial Aid Office “a trusted team of individuals who are committed to student success.”
They work together – and with faculty, staff and administrators across campus – to ensure higher education is accessible for all students. The office manages around $30 million in student resources, from federal loans and Pell Grants to scholarships supported by private donations.
During Sommers’ time on campus, the endowment fund supporting UNK student scholarships has more than doubled.
“Chancellor Kristensen deserves a lot of credit for that. He is tireless about talking about UNK and the needs of our students,” Sommers said. “Our University of Nebraska Foundation partners have been incredible, as well. The team here in Kearney has been great.”
The university’s academic quality and overall impact on the state also play important roles.
“I think all of that really resonates with donors,” Sommers said.
In addition to the growth in private gifts, the University of Nebraska launched the Nebraska Promise, a financial aid program that allows qualifying Nebraska students with family incomes of $65,000 or less to attend any NU campus tuition-free. And, UNK introduced the New Nebraskan Scholarship, which reduces the tuition rate for all out-of-state students to the in-state price for traditional, on-campus classes.
Sommers applauded her team for effectively serving students while balancing federal, state and university requirements attached to these financial aid programs. They’ve done this by implementing systems that simplify a sometimes complex process and make it easier for students to navigate.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the way our team has always thought about, ‘How do we leverage technology to better serve students?’” Sommers said. “They’ve never hesitated to embrace new technology or try something different.”
That teamwork wouldn’t be possible without guidance from a great leader. In recognition of her impact, Sommers has received UNK’s Staff Award for Excellence and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents KUDOS award, the university’s top staff honor.
She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Meritorious Achievement Award from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Regional Leadership Award from the Rocky Mountain Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and Bob Minturn Award from the Nebraska Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the highest honor for a member. Sommers held a variety of leadership positions with all three organizations and served as an instructor during professional development events.
Now that they’re both retired, she and husband Matt plan to travel more often – she still loves the Mountain West region and they plan to “escape” the Nebraska winters in Arizona or New Mexico – and there are opportunities to remain active in the financial aid profession in a consulting capacity.
“But it’ll be on my timeline,” she said with a smile.