It might seem crazy to think, Penn State isn’t always the top school for everyone’s choice of college. Depending on where you live, your priorities are quite different and so is your search for a college. In Laura McKinney’s case, or you may know her as the 2019-20 President of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), Penn State wasn’t the obvious choice.
Being from South Florida, she always knew that she wanted to leave and explore what the Northeast had in store for her. However, she wasn’t all too knowledgeable about Penn State and started leaning towards other schools. McKinney told VALLEY, “I was pretty much sold on Indiana University and almost didn’t visit Penn State, but I had a gut feeling that I needed to go see it.” But as soon as she did, Indiana was a distant thought and McKinney became a Nittany Lion.
Not only did McKinney become a part of the Penn State family, but she also became a part of the Bellisario College of Communications, as she found her passion in Broadcast Journalism. “Since I was a little girl, I have always been fascinated by people’s stories—where they come from, their best days, their worst days, the lessons they learn through it all—it captivates me.” McKinney got the chance to visit New York City when she was young and was deeply interested in the working of the Today Show. So, Broadcast Journalism was the natural course for her career path. But just being a part of Nittany Nation wasn’t enough, McKinney wanted to integrate herself and make a change during her four years at Penn State.
She began her freshman year trying out pretty much anything that sparked her interest. McKinney said, “ I signed up for just about every club. Trying to find the one that was right for me, I dabbled in a little bit of everything, attending introduction meetings from club cross country to Greek life. The more time I spent at Penn State, in just my first month, I knew I wanted to find an organization in which the mission was to serve and enhance the Penn State student experience.” Trial and error led her to UPUA, and as she did her research on the organization, she became interested in joining.
However there was one drawback when she approached the people at the UPUA office, they informed her that the applications were closed. Discouraged freshman McKinney ran back to her dorm in Stone Hall, only for her to daydream about the organization for the following days. So, McKinney decided to do what any successful person does, try again. “I emailed them and asked if there was any chance they would consider me, and they said they might consider me if I could get my application to them ASAP. I did as requested, and instantly ran to the HUB with my application, and by that night, I was apart of the UPUA.”
VALLEY asked McKinney why was she so determined to be apart of UPUA, she responded, “The thing that propelled me to push UPUA to allow me to become apart of the organization was the fact that I knew that UPUA’s mission was to better student life.” “ I wanted to contribute and help advance that special feeling for other students in any way I could.”
I am enamored with life. I think it is such a profound and beautifully mad journey. It is way, way, way too short not to go for what you want and do what excites you.Laura McKinney
As McKinney shifted from member to vice president and finally, to the president of UPUA, she adapted to the increasing amount of responsibilities that followed her. She said, “I think the most profound responsibility of the role for me was knowing that around 46,000 people counted on me to make decisions for them and to be their voice.” Being president of 46,000 people is hard enough and comes with its own challenges, but McKinney has had to take on uncharted territory brought on by the recent pandemic. “Right when I was about to wrap up and wind down a year of work, I found myself having to step up in a more significant way than I ever anticipated.
Not only were students getting blindsided by having the rest of their academic year being held virtually, but they had to adjust to online learning, cope with financial strains and face difficult mental health challenges.” These challenges have tested her leadership abilities along with her own life, seeing as McKinney has recently graduated with her degree in Broadcast Journalism along with minors in entrepreneurship and innovation. But through it all, McKinney kept her positive spirit and her end goal in mind—to be an advocate for every student at Penn State.
Being president is rewarding within itself, but McKinney found deeper meanings and importance of being a leader to thousands of students. When asked what was one of the most valuable things a student has taught you, McKinney responded, “However, the meetings I cherished the absolute most were the meetings with a student who would reach out to me, asking if they could have a moment of my time to talk about a change they want to see. They would often start the meeting by saying, ‘I know you are very busy and probably have a lot of other people to meet with, but thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me,’ and all I could think was, I work for them! I should be thanking them for taking the time to meet with me!”
She then followed with, “This taught me that time is the most valuable thing you can give someone and that one person’s time is not more valuable than another person’s. Showing up for people goes a long way, and respecting their time is essential. For the rest of my life, I will always treasure the time I give and get from people. There is no greater gift than time.”
“For the rest of my life, I will always treasure the time I give and get from people. There is no greater gift than time.”Laura McKinney
Although McKinney is leaving Penn State and UPUA behind to begin her ventures into the “real world”, her impact and the impact on her from her experiences at PSU are everlasting. Although right now is a tough time for college graduates, McKinney is staying positive and sees bright plans for her future. She has a love for New York City and knows that is where she will end up someday to “bring recreation and entertainment to people’s lives.” She told VALLEY, “I have some things cooking right now, but I won’t say since it is not in stone yet. I will say though, that the best is yet to come!”
McKinney’s impact won’t stop at graduation as she is leaving behind a strong example of what it means to be a Penn State student and a leader. To those who are still going through college and maybe lost in finding their place, McKinney says, “To those who don’t know where to start, I would say, do what you love, and the rest will follow. Notice what you are doing when you feel the most authentic joy in your life, and then go do that. There is always a route to find your passion, and all you have to do is trust your instincts; they will show you who you are and bring you to where you are meant to be. I promise. Trust yourself.”
As McKinney goes on to bigger things beyond the confines of State College, Penn State will have a special place in her heart forever. A special place to McKinney is the stone benches surrounding the flagpoles in front of Old Main. McKinney said, “It was my favorite place to reflect because although you are basically sitting in the middle of Old Main lawn, no one is really looking at you.” She would sit and journal, hiding away in plain sight.
Although McKinney was miles away from her sunny home, she found her place at Penn State within UPUA, in the hearts of her friends, giving her time to her peers as president, in her numerous accomplishments and sitting on the benches outside of Old Main. Thank you Laura for everything you’ve done for Penn State!