University Relations and Communications

Connections that last

May 11, 2011



Kathy Kotecki, Office of Community Involvement, 896-5815
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269


Student-led award-winning program at MSU Billings unites college and elementary students


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — The day was half spent for the fourth-graders in Debra Laci’s class at McKinley elementary, but the fun was just about to begin.


The college kids were here!


“Kathy is here! Kathy is here!,” an excited Briana Mills pipes up, barely able to keep to her seat.


Kathy is Kathy Kotecki, adviser of the Montana State University Billings Student United Way and director of the university’s Office of Community Involvement. She was also Briana’s e-mail buddy over the past few months, providing encouragement and friendly chats while the student improved her computer and language skills.


The connection was made to the fourth-graders at McKinley and Orchard elementary schools in Billings and a special needs classroom ion Washington state through Jacket Pals, a unique program to provide educational service and outreach for the Student United Way group at MSU Billings.


Through Jacket Pals, e-mails were sent to 27 students through a classroom e-mail address at McKinley and letters were sent to 23 fourth-graders at Orchard. The correspondence was a way for about 25 MSU Billings students to support the efforts of students who may need an extra boost from time to time.


It also provided a new connection between the university and the community, said Kotecki.


“It was something different that really made a difference,” she said.


""That difference was noted. The Jacket Pals project was selected by United Way as to receive a national LIVE UNITED Action Award for its educational outreach. Kotecki was also selected as the Student United Way Adviser of the Year for the entire country.


Located on about 50 campuses across America, Student United Way is helping to advance the common good in communities they are located. At MSU Billings the Student United Way chapter is a led for and by students. They work on various service projects across the community from Habitat for Humanity to elementary school outreach to volunteer activities.


Alicia Meyer, a recently graduated member of Student United Way who spearheaded the program, said the idea was to find a service project that could be maintained throughout the school year. Writing letters and e-mails fit the bill perfectly because the college students could fit it in during their busy schedule.


“We wanted to get involved with youth and wanted to do something that occurred throughout the year, but getting everyone together on a regular basis was hard,” said Meyer, who did the groundwork on contacting teachers. “This worked out great.”


Once they got the project off the ground last October, the elementary students used the experience to write about family, school, pets, friends … you name it. The college students and some staff volunteers responded with encouragement, praise and sometimes little jokes.

The young Jacket Pals knew the names of their older friends, but until Monday of this week, they had never met.


The excitement in the McKinley classroom was evident when eight students joined Kotecki to “reveal” their identities. The young Jacket Pals were given certificates and a bag of goodies to take home.


“We shared about seven or eight e-mails,” Kotecki said, as she and Briana got caught up on various topics.


Briana could barely contain her glee.


“I am very excited!” she said.


MSU Billings student Mary Owen got a chance to meet up with nine-year-old Caitlin Jimenez for the first time. Later that day, Carlos Hernandez got to meet his Jacket Pal Zachary at Orchard.


“This project was an eye opener,” Hernandez said, reflecting on a few months of taking about sports and school. “The kids were something special.”


“We shared a lot of similarities,” Hernandez said. “At the end of our letters we would share a joke with each other. It always put a smile on my face because the jokes were the ones I heard when I was in fourth grade.”


Liz Collins, an MSU Billings junior who will be leading Student United Way next academic year, said the experience a great opportunity to get involved kids in a new way.  And she, like many of the college students, was just as excited to meet her Jacket Pal as the youngsters were. 


Meyer said the project was a perfect fit for the educational mission of MSU Billings.


“Part of what we (Student United Way) do is advocate for education and this is a perfect way to do it,” she said.


Some of the elementary students in the project come from broken homes and many had no idea of the opportunities ahead of them with college, Meyer said.


“For some of them, college was never on their radar,” she said. “By the time we were done, many said they wanted to go to college too, and wanted to ‘be like you guys.’ ”


To find out more about Student United Way at MSU Billings, call the Office of Community Involvement at 896-5815.


PHOTOS ABOVE: Briana Mills, 10, a fourth-grader at McKinley Elementary in Billings, can barely hold her excitement as she meets her e-mail “Jacket Pal” Kathy Kotecki on Monday. Kotecki, who is the adviser for Student United Way at MSU Billings, took part in a student-led outreach and educational program this past year that connected kids at two elementary schools in Billings with college students. The “Jacket Pals” program earned a national award from United Way for its effectiveness. Below, MSU Billings students Liz Collins and Alicia Meyer share moments with fourth-grade Jacket Pals at McKinley.


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