|June 17, 2011|
Kathy Kotecki has been associated with MSU Billings for about 18 years. She graduated with a business management degree in 1997, received her master’s of education degree in student affairs in 2000 and is now the director of the Office of Community Involvement and is adviser for Student United Way. This spring, she was named Student United Way campus adviser of the year for the entire country. The photos below show Kotecki involved in projects recently, one dealing with writing at McKinley Elementary and the other serving lunch to flood evacuees who were staying at MSU Billings.
The Service Leader
Directing community involvement and student engagement, Kathy Kotecki honored for putting ideals to work
By Dan Carter
Some people lead from the front, charging forward with a cause on their mind and an ability to put people to work. Others lead from the rear, cheering and directing actions to get things done.
Then there are those like Kathy Kotecki, who lead from the middle, diving into the thick of things, showing just how important it is to live by example, putting the needs of others before herself. As a service leader, she is adept at rolling up her sleeves and working side by side with college students, staff and community members dealing with everything from homelessness to hunger to after-school care and education.
Kotecki, who is director of the Office of Community Involvement and staff advisor to Student United Way at Montana State University Billings, can often be found smack dab in the center of service projects, volunteer work and other university outreach.
It’s her way of connecting students to their community beyond the classroom.
“What we do is more than volunteering,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s two-fold. The work we do is often project-based, but we also want to get to the theory behind our involvement and why it’s important to the community.”
For Kotecki, it’s not a matter of IF that kind of work needs to be done, but WHEN. And whether it’s about serving meals to flood evacuees or giving MSU Billings students the freedom to help solve local problems, the focus is always on others.
But this spring, the spotlight turned squarely back on the MSU Billings alumnus and longtime staffer. She was named Student United Way Campus Adviser of the Year for all Student United Way groups from around the country.
Student United Way is a campus-based organization led for and by students. Currently, Student United Ways exist on more than 50 campuses across the United States including a variety of universities, junior and community colleges, and technical and trade schools. Student leaders are playing a crucial role in communities like Billings through Student United Way by connecting to elementary students through unique writing programs, feeding the hungry and assisting in specialized service projects.
The MSU Billings group averages between 25 and 30 students a year and Kotecki said some students come to the university with the intent to serve as well as learn. Whether it’s parental influence or an innate sense of passion and justice, they are ready to dive in. Others learn by osmosis, soaking up the aspirations of those around them.
“Some students just don’t understand yet that they can use their strengths to benefit the community,” she said. “They just don’t think in those terms yet. They think academics as just one-sided.”
Working with faculty members and others on service-learning projects and objectives, Kotecki has built a stable of supporters who help students understand that they can use what they learn in the classroom to work in Billings. For example, some students last year developed strategies in a class to help build awareness of a foster families program. Others worked with representatives from Family Services, Inc. on ways to better explain the homeless challenge in Billings. And she regularly works with the Salvation Army to recruit MSU Billings students and staff to serve food twice a week through the Community Table delivery van.
“Kathy’s ability to connect our faculty, staff and students to community resources and needs has benefited all,” said Dr. Stacy Klippenstein, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at MSU Billings. “By starting the Student United Way program, Kathy demonstrated, once again, her passion to help students learn more about civic engagement and our social responsibility to help others. Through the Student United Way program, students not only gain a more broad understanding of our community, they learn how to be true servant leaders. This is because Kathy is a true servant leader.”
A graduate of MSU Billings with a business management degree and a master’s in student affairs, Kotecki has been director of Community Involvement since 2004. Klippenstein notes that in the past few years, she has worked closely with faculty and staff to create more service-learning courses and connections within the community. She also teaches a course called “Into the Streets” that is designed to teach students how to be engaged and better understand the life-long impact they can make on their communities.
Students note how those relationships add value to their college experience.
“Kathy always looks for unique opportunities to involve students and new ideas to expand our volunteers into many areas of life on campus, as well as the Billings community,” said Kelsie Hanson, a sophomore from Chinook and past president of Student United Way. “Kathy implements leadership trainings with our Executive Team to guarantee we are prepared to fulfill our roles within the organization.”
First to arrive at service events and usually last to leave, Kotecki is known for a contagious spirit.
“Beyond Kathy’s duties as an employee and an advisor, she is a volunteer,” said Alicia Meyer, who graduated this spring with a public relations degree. “She rarely misses an opportunity to join our group in a service project. Often, when telling Kathy of a volunteer opportunity, she is brought to tears thinking about how WE can make a difference.”
When MSU Billings was asked in late May to use some rooms in a residence hall for Red Cross shelter for flood evacuees, Kotecki was on the front lines. She used her connections in the community to get used clothing to Petro Hall for those who were forced out of their homes without extra shirts and pants. She purchased diapers for babies. She made and served sandwiches.
Had students been on campus during that time, Kotecki would have had them working on games with kids, serving meals or other tasks. It’s all a part of embracing service.
“If we model it, then it trickles down to students and they see how it works,” she said.
In the coming year, Kotecki said she wants to continue to build bridges between student leaders, academic leaders and the community so that more students can get enhance their college experience with service to the community. Brian Kmec, a part-time history instructor at MSU Billings, will be working part-time with the Office of Community Involvement as a service learning coordinator to tighten those bonds.
Not every student comes to MSU Billings with a zealous approach to making difference, Kotecki said, but through service learning projects and outreach through groups like Student United Way, they might be able to find their passion.
“We hope to help them understand that it’s OK to care about something and understand that being involved is more than just showing up to volunteer,” she said. “And maybe by the time they are seniors, they can get fired up about something.”
To find out more about the Office of Community Involvement, call 896-5815 or go to www.msubillings.edu/community/