A chance to shine: Student teams excel thanks to donor support
By Hayli Morrison
Tosh Taylor awakens in the dark, attends a team briefing, helps fuel the planes and conducts preflight checks — and that’s before 8 a.m. It’s competition day for Kansas State University Salina Flight Team members, when grueling training hours and generous donor support come together for one chance to shine.
And shine they did. Despite losing three veteran members to graduation this year, the flight team won its region for the first time and will represent K-State at nationals this spring.
“There’s literally no way possible we could do this without the help of donors,” said the Riley, Kan. student, citing the high cost of equipment, fuel and travel.
Dr. Dennis Kuhlman agreed with Taylor that consistent philanthropy is the key to helping student teams reach new heights. As former dean of K-State Salina, Kuhlman still resides near that campus and continues to support its teams through philanthropy.
“Each year, the flight team has seen improvement,” Kuhlman said. “You don’t just go into a competition like this and win it the first time out. It’s a long, sustained process.” That long-term perspective also motivates other supporters of K-State’s student competition teams, like Manhattan, Kan. resident Jerry Boettcher (’63).
The nuclear engineering alum recently established the College of Engineering’s first endowed fund to support student teams. Gifts at the endowed level are invested for long-term impact, with a portion of the earnings supporting the donor’s designated purpose year after year.
“I have always tried to be an advocate of giving endowed funds because that will help somebody 50 years from now,” Boettcher said. “Some of the student team needs aren’t all that expensive, but there’s no designated source of funds. I suspect the dean’s office ends up taking it out of their budget, which means making a choice. With an endowed fund to call upon, those choices are easier.”
Soft skills, concrete value
Donors like Kuhlman and Boettcher recognize another intrinsic value of investing in student teams — instilling in the next generation such critical skills as persistence, leadership, cooperation, goal-setting and time management. Sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” these traits hold concrete value in the workforce.
“I hear it from the employers who hire these students. They’re the ones who say, ‘Your students need the soft skills like teamwork, work ethic and commitment to goals — things that aren’t taught in the classroom,’” said Dr. Kevin Donnelly, professor of crop science and coach of the K-State Crops Judging Team, national champions 12 of the last 15 years. “Hiring managers look for these out-of-class activities on resumes to help validate that the student has the necessary skills.”
When Kelly Marshall interned her junior year with Crop Production Services, the 2011 agronomy graduate stood out so much that she eventually landed a full-time job as area seed manager for the Loveland, Colo.-based company. Marshall, of Leavenworth, Kan., credits advanced knowledge from competing three years with the Crops Judging Team.
“It gives you an advantage when you go into the job force,” she said of the team experience, which also honed her leadership skills through service as assistant coach.
“It is my belief that students really need a full dose of activities outside the classroom where they can work together,” Boettcher said. “Everyone ends up in a team later on in the workforce.”
While class projects present an opportunity for collaboration, student teams tend to require more prolonged teamwork, said computer engineering senior Kyle McGahee, Shawnee, Kan.
“I think it’s more applicable to the real world after graduation,” said McGahee, a member of K-State’s Robotic Competition Team. “Coming together with a group of four or five people for the whole year instead of a week or two is a different experience in terms of communication and staying on task.”
The team experience has delivered the greatest benefit in the area of leadership skills, according to McGahee. He feels more results oriented, more skilled with public presentations and more capable of individual and team time management.
“Student teams are an excellent opportunity beyond the classroom,” said Joe Farrar, president and CEO of Manhattan, Kan.-based Farrar Corporation, which has long donated materials and manpower to support K-State College of Engineering student teams. “They’re learning what it takes to get something done — coordination, meeting deadlines, teamwork and follow-through.”
Recruit, retain, inspire
After earning his master’s in agronomy from K-State in 1952, Harold Swartley made it a priority to support the K-State Crops Judging Team. The Boise, Idaho resident fondly recalls his undergraduate participation with crops judging at Pennsylvania State University before the team was deactivated.
“They dropped the team because of lack of support and I didn’t want to see that happen at Kansas State,” Swartley said, adding that student teams are a “very important” enhancement to the overall college experience.
Enhancing the student experience is also a key priority for K-State in its strategic plan to be a top 50 public research university by 2025. Competition teams help produce graduates with highly developed skill sets, but perhaps more importantly, provide a sense of belonging and encouragement for students.
“I feel like if you keep your hand in extracurriculars like this, it can help you through the more difficult aspects of the engineering major,” McGahee said.
Through annual events like Open House and Week of Welcome, student teams also play a role in recruiting and inspiring the next generation of K-State students.
“We’re always involved in Open House,” McGahee said. “We also talk to some of the freshman orientation classes so they know if they stick with their courses, these are some of the cool things they can apply it to.”
Likewise, while serving as dean of K-State Salina, Kuhlman saw the power of competition teams in student recruiting. “We’ve had students who came to K-State Salina because of the Mini Baja competition team,” he said of the four-wheel off-road vehicle designed by engineering technology students.
It’s rewarding to see the Tosh Taylors who rise before dawn to compete, the Kelly Marshalls who step up to coach teammates, and the Kyle McGahees who help inspire fellow students. But the real reward, according to Kuhlman, comes after the students graduate and leave their teams.
“When you donate toward student teams, it’s about what they go on to do after they graduate,” Kuhlman said. “The progress of those graduates is just astounding, and they will tell you what really ignited their fires was a student competition or being involved with one of these teams. That’s the payback.”
How you can help
To show your support for student teams at K-State, please contact Tresa Weaver, senior vice president of development, at 785-532-7530 or firstname.lastname@example.org.