Graduation profile: When opportunity knocks, senior answers

Kierstin McMichael is the definition of busy. Between leadership positions and jobs on campus, reading and studying hundreds of pages a week for her English major, working  with not just one but two distinguished professors, and advising fellow students, she finds little time for sleep, let alone downtime. But being tired is worth it to do what she loves, which put simply, is seizing every opportunity to grow as a leader and a scholar and helping others do the same.

“On days where I’m tired, I just think about how much I’ve had to do to even get to this point and it would really be a shame if I gave up now. When you have passion driving you forward, it makes it a little bit worth it, to do what you have to do to make things happen,” she said.

Since she came to the University of Kansas from Wichita, Kierstin said, she’s possessed a sense of confidence and leadership that she hadn’t found in herself in high school. Experiencing a transformation herself through her college years, Kierstin has gravitated to positions that allow her to advise and encourage fellow students. She’s served as a peer advisor, orientation assistant, Office of Multicultural Affairs social justice peer educator, student housing resident assistant, and TRIO Options Bridge Program Leader, just to name a few. In recognition of her contributions as a student leader, she won an Alexis F. Dillard Student Involvement Award in her senior year.

Academically, she’s just as prolific. She’s a McNair Scholar and a Multicultural Scholar who’s worked side-by-side on research projects with distinguished professors Maryemma Graham in the Department of English and David Roediger in the Department of American Studies.

After graduation, Kierstin sees herself working in higher education, broadening the diversity of students who have access to the college experience and encouraging future generations to discover what drives them. And she’d really like to see an otter and a Pallas cat in person someday.

Kierstin McMichael
I can take leadership experiences I’ve had with previous things and apply them to whatever I’m starting up next and it gives me this library of knowledge in my head. I kind of view all the things that I’ve done as separate file folders but every now and then I can copy a file and put it into another folder.

When did your passion for helping students start and what motivates you?

In high school, I actually was not a leader at all. I didn’t do anything with leadership whatsoever. I didn’t even have confidence to speak the word leader out of my mouth and think that it had anything to do with me. So, when I came here, the first weekend I was here, people kept asking me, “are you the RA for our floor,” and I’d be like, “no.” I don’t know what happened when I stepped foot on this campus but I was like, excuse me, kicking ass and taking names. I obviously had missed opportunities for leadership and I want to take advantage of that now that I have opportunities to cultivate myself as a leader.

I like to help people figure out what they want to do and try to figure out ways that they can do it. I really like what I do. I overheard someone who went here having a conversation with their mom about their class schedule, it was in Kohl’s, and I almost jumped over the jewelry rack. I was like, “I’m literally about to help you so hard.” And then I thought, wait, I’m not clocked in, I don’t have a computer, what’s wrong with me?

There is something unique about having an environment where you can push yourself intellectually with other people who want to do the same thing. A lot of people can’t ever access this experience and in some ways that’s what pushes me to continue doing what I do because if I’ve been able to come here and grow this much, then it’s inexcusable to me to not have other people be able to do the same thing.

What are you most proud of?

When people say that you come to college to become a better person or to learn or to engage, I think I really took that to heart. And I think I have taken almost every single opportunity I can to accomplish the goals that I had for myself. There were some twists and turns along the way. But I’m happy that through everything, with my personal life, with my jobs and working a ton, with involvement, with my classes, through all of that, I just pushed through. I don’t think that would be possible without people on this campus who are doing the work to make sure that students like me can have the opportunities that I’ve had. Without the Office of Multicultural Affairs, without TRIO programs, without the Multicultural Scholars Program, I literally could not be here. I’m really proud of the way that I’ve been able to take advantage of some of the resources on campus when it comes to expanding my mind, becoming a more critical thinker about society, and what I can do as an individual to become a part of positive change in the world in order to make these types of environments more accessible to students who don’t generally get the opportunity.

I’m happy that I didn’t just go to my classes and call it quits. I’m happy that I actually challenged myself to think about topics in different ways so that I can become a more empathetic member of society. I wish that I could say there was one thing on my resume that I am most proud of because some of those positions do come with a level of prestige and respect. I’m more proud of the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be challenged by people who care about pushing to make universities a better place for students of marginalized identities. And also that to some degree I’ve been able to converse and have dialogue with people who might not have been introduced to some of the ways of thinking that I have. Even if they don’t change their entire worldview, maybe have some small effect on how they treat another person.

 What view do you have of the university from all your involvement?

The interesting thing about being part of a lot of different leadership experiences on campus is that any experience that I had before I started a new position helped inform the leader I became within the new position. I can take leadership experiences I’ve had with previous things and apply them to whatever I’m starting up next and it gives me this library of knowledge in my head. I kind of view all the things that I’ve done as separate file folders but every now and then I can copy a file and put it into another folder. Especially as someone who works in positions where I help other students, I think it helps me help them a little bit better because I have such a broad range of knowledge about things on campus. Over time I’ve just built up a bigger library.

What’s at the top of your bucket list?

I’d actually like to leave the United States for the first time. I’ve always wanted to study abroad in Costa Rica because they occupy so little of the earth’s surface but they have so much biodiversity there. I’d be scared out of my pants most of the time but I think it would be interesting to encounter all of those different forms of nature. And it’s supposed to be really beautiful. Also, I would like to go wherever sea otters live. Or, do you know what a Pallas cat is? I’d really like to meet a Pallas cat. They’re literally the cutest thing and they have cute little faces and big paws.

Do you ever get the opportunity to bring in otters and Pallas cats into your English coursework?

I’m the traditional literature track. I actually have never taken a creative writing class but I’m sure if I did, a lot of cats would show up in some of the work that I created, because I have a cat and he’s my baby. The classes that I like to take are specifically outside of the Western canon. I don’t want to read F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry David Thoreau anymore. I’m more interested in social justice literature, slave narratives, black women’s writing, literature by indigenous writers. No Shakespeare for me. I have had instructors that teach topics that I wasn’t particularly interested in but they were enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough that it kind of rubbed off. So even though I didn’t particularly like the topic I really enjoyed their classes because they’re amazing. Dr. Schieberle in the English department teaches medieval studies classes – that is not my bread and butter. But she is so absolutely spectacular that you can’t not enjoy it.

What’s the last thing you read for fun?

For fun? So, I’m an English major, so for class assignments, period, it’s probably anywhere from 150 to 300 pages a week. So fun reading doesn’t happen. By the time I get done with my actual assigned reading, I’m usually half asleep or really tired. But the last thing I read that I really enjoyed was “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. It was for my English 328 Literature and Film class. And I grew up on the movie, so I really enjoyed reading the novel.

What’s it been like working with distinguished professors Maryemma Graham and David Roediger?

The best thing about Dr. Graham is that she knows what you’re capable of and will push you for you to recognize that the same way that she does. I love her. She’s all about nothing but the best. And I think that ambition is really inspiring to people like me.  A lot of times you see someone and you know they’ve done important things and written several books and they’re this huge figure in academia and you think that they’re not going to be approachable. But the way that Dr. Roediger ended up being my mentor is that when I found out that he came here, I banged on his door when it was shut, and he opened it and I started yelling at him, “I loved ‘Wages of Whiteness,’ please talk to me. Hi, I’m Kierstin!” By the end of that meeting, he literally agreed to be my mentor for McNair before I even got accepted. I consider those two of my biggest mentors. As eager as I am as a student to get to know a little bit more about their work and what they’ve done, they’re just as eager to impart the knowledge that they already have on me as a student who’s interested and do what they can to help me do whatever I want to do. They’re both so approachable and absolutely spectacular scholars. I think a lot of people don’t think they can go bang on someone’s door and be like, “Hi. I love you!” But it works. It worked for me.

What’s your advice on balancing your time?

Literally, anytime I had a break, up until this last year, I slept, slept, slept. As far as balancing time goes, planners and sticky notes are your best bet. Also the calendar on Outlook, a lot of students don’t use and they should because it’s the best thing ever.

What’s next after graduation?

I have an internship at Texas Christian University in student affairs for the summer. It’s through the NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) undergraduate fellows program and Precious Porras, the director of OMA (Office of Multicultural Affairs), is my mentor for that. So over the summer I’m going to be working in student affairs. I think I’m going to be doing some housing administration work, some stuff with orientation and also have the opportunity to work with NPHC (National Pan-Hellenic Council) and Greek life. That’s for about two months and that gives me some time to decide what my next step is. I most likely will be looking for a full-time job at a college or university to start professional experience before I decide what I want to do after that. I don’t know if I’m going to stop just after a bachelor’s but I feel like I’m going to take a couple of years off and I’m going to be like, “I’ve got to do something.”