In the early hours of Wednesday, Oct.14, Penn State alumna and fall 2014 Valley cover girl Kayla Nakonechni lost her fight with brain cancer. Kayla was a wonderful person with an infectious smile who lived by the motto “Life’s tough but I’m tougher.” Her loss is felt by the entire Penn State community and the many, many lives she touched. The Valley staff members who worked closest with Kayla during her time as Valley’s cover girl came together to share their sentiments and memories.
Editor-in-Chief (spring-fall 2014)
What does it mean to be a Valley cover girl?
You think it’s the girl who does well in school, is recognized around campus and is involved in extracurriculars.
But in reality, it’s so, so much more.
We choose someone with an incredible story to share, someone who has made an impact on the world and someone who has a passion for helping others. And in fall 2014, that someone was Kayla Nakonechni.
The second she walked into the cramped, over-crowded Valley magazine office in the HUB-Robeson building for her interview in September of last year, we knew she was the one – the perfect role model for Penn State students. On that brisk afternoon, Kayla told us her story of dancing, her love of THON and her dream to go to medical school to become a pediatric oncologist.
Kayla’s life was dedicated to helping pediatric cancer patients, while she herself was a pediatric cancer patient. She was diagnosed with brain cancer during the summer of 2013, and lost her fight on October 14, 2015.
When I heard the news of Kayla’s passing, almost a year after she graced the cover of Valley, I was speechless. She had been doing well for a while, “no sign of disease,” as she told me last fall. But at the beginning of this year, doctors found two tumor growths in her left parietal lobe.
To Kayla, the seizures and the tumors were fascinating, and not the least bit scary. Not once during my time spent with Kayla did she show any fear of her disease, only curiosity. She expressed her disappointment that her seven-hour brain surgery wasn’t filmed, because she wanted to watch it after it was done. There was never remorse over her diagnosis, only the expectation to move toward the next step.
She was the ultimate Penn Stater. Kayla was involved in THON in every sense – as a committee member in 2012, a dancer in 2013 and as a THON child in 2014 and 2015. And you didn’t want to get her started on football games – the girl attended the Penn State vs. Syracuse game at MetLife stadium in 2013, just two weeks after she had brain surgery. “I just brought earplugs,” she had told me, as if it was no big deal.
Behind the scenes of our cover girl shoot, Kayla was just as easy-going and relaxed. Not once did she complain about the leaves being thrown at her for the perfect shot, the copious amounts of makeup, or about how I almost knocked her into the lake at Whipple Dam when shooting the cover shot on a bridge. Kayla was a pleasure to work with, and a joy to be around.
Kayla’s bright, beautiful and bold smile was one of the first things I noticed about her. Her smile, brightened by her brown eyes, lit up at any mention of her boyfriend, John Tecce (class of ’13) or her dog, Gilly. And just recently, Kayla became an aunt to a beautiful little girl named Charlie.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Kayla said. “You just have to get there.” May Kayla’s light continue to shine on her family, friends and the entire Penn State community, my thoughts and prayers go out to you all. The entire Valley Magazine staff will forever hold Kayla dear in our hearts.
Photography director (fall 2014)
I am so deeply saddened by the news of Kayla’s passing. Kayla had a special kind of smile. The kind that was warm and infectious, and no matter where the camera was pointing, she was always smiling.
When we worked on Valley’s magazine cover, she joked that her smile wasn’t “serious” enough for a magazine. We all laughed and I immediately told her: “Don’t worry, just smile like you’re in Disney World!”
Then, Kayla showed us her “Disney World” smile.
It was a true privilege to have gotten to know Kayla and share those times on her photo-shoot. She will forever live in our hearts and memories with her priceless “Disney World” smile.
Styling director (fall 2014-spring 2015)
It’s always interesting to do a cover girl shoot. You never know what the person you are working with will be like. I am very lucky to have worked with such an amazing girl as Kayla.
For me, spending time directly with Kayla made me really wonder what it would be like to be in her shoes. With her personality, you would never be able to tell that she had battled cancer.
I learned how involved and passionate Kayla was about so many things, it was extremely admirable that she didn’t let her sickness get in the way of her life and what she would accomplish. I loved hearing everything she had to say at our fittings and photo shoots.
She was open to every idea our team had on our two day long shoot, even when it came down to shooting outside in the dark with the harsh Pennsylvania winds, all while she was dressed in a skirt and the rest of us in down jackets and gloves. She was open to every outfit choice I threw her way, even when I could tell she wasn’t sure if she was completely comfortable with it—always insisting we add a headband from her collection.
The last shot we tried to do was Kayla walking down an old road with some autumn leaves blowing in the background. We must have tried the shot a dozen times until we realized the shoes didn’t match. Trying to achieve the perfect shot, Kayla and I decided to switch shoes.
Even with her flats literally on my feet, I’ll still never fully understand what it would be like to be in her shoes. What I do know, is we should all try to live a little more like Kayla did everyday, and to always appreciate the people you meet along your way at Penn State and in life, because you never know how much they can inspire you.
You will be missed by many, rest easy Kayla.
Web director (fall 2013-spring 2015) | Editor-in-Chief (fall 2015)
Early in the semester of fall 2014, we began, as we do every semester, the search for our next cover girl. At the time, we had not received as many applications as was typical which led us to resort to thinking of possible candidates ourselves. That was when I thought of Kayla Nakonechni.
Being involved in THON, I had heard her story a few times. We had even written about her for Valley’s website once before. I knew her as Kayla — the girl with the really tough last name to pronounce, who danced in THON 2013 and later discovered she herself had cancer.
I first met Kayla when she came in for her cover girl interview. We were thrilled that she had accepted the nomination and couldn’t wait to meet her. It was apparent from the moment she walked in the room and began telling her story that we knew she was the one. She spoke her heart to us. She explained everything with a smile, even the tough moments.
That was when I got to know Kayla — the sweet, humble and strong girl who battled cancer, never gave up hope and had the most Penn State pride of anyone I had ever met.
Some of my favorite days as a member of Valley are those we spent with Kayla. We split the cover shoot into two days. The first was on campus, shooting at the Nittany Lion statue and at Gate A — her home as part of Nittanyville.
The second day we took her to nearby Whipple Dam. It was there that we got the most beautiful photos with the fall scenery—her favorite season. That was a fun day. We were the only ones there aside from a couple taking engagement photos and we all ran around like little kids laughing, cracking jokes, throwing leaves (at Kayla, for the perfect shot) and taking hundreds of photos.
Its heart-breaking to see such a bright, beautiful life and person pass. But if there’s one thing I learned from getting to know her those few days, it was that optimism in the face of life’s toughest obstacles is the way to keep peace in your heart.
On behalf of the entire Valley Magazine staff, past and present, I offer my deepest condolences to her family, friends, classmates and the countless others she touched. We are #TeamKayla, forever and always.
Kayla’s cover story from the fall 2014 issue can be read in its entirety, here.