Chris Johnson | Contributing Writer

College is complicated. In going through it you might wonder how it runs, why it sometimes works out and at other times seems an expensive exercise in frustration.

photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker. Kayley Schoonmaker, 20, President of the Minnesota State College and Student Association
photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker. Kayley Schoonmaker, 20, President of the Minnesota State College and Student Association

In the distant time that was 2012, Kayley Schoonmaker didn’t know what she what wanted to do with her life. It was the old college dilemma, the struggle to find career direction amidst the uncertainties of college life. Wanting to make a difference, she had been thinking of going into radiological technology. It was a sensible choice. A steady job profiting a community. “High need”, a friend had called it. In the medical field she would help people, when she finished her schooling.

the Student Senate president there at Itasca Community College invited her to a routine meeting, she wasn’t expecting much. Nothing more than a young Minnesota college student could or would reasonably hope for. No glory, no big shots at destiny.

She also wasn’t expecting that taking him up on the offer would kindle a fire that would carry her far — to the presidency of Minnesota’s 2-year college student association. The Minnesota State College and Student Association (MSCSA) is a deliberative assembly legally representing over 100,000 students across the state.

“His name is Dan Mackenzie”, she remembers. They shared a biology class. “That’s where I met him, the crazy, eccentric student president.” He was, she says, “The kind of guy that you like, run away from when he has a clipboard… he was always talking about the student senate.”

Itasca was a nice college and radiology was going well, but Schoonmaker wasn’t satisfied. “One day I just felt like—I don’t have any real friends, I need to go do something,” she says. By her own description, she was “pretty outgoing”; she needed people.

In Senate, she found the something she was looking for, though as is often the case in life, the promise of that opportunity wasn’t immediately clear, and understandably so. It isn’t advertised very much around Itasca State (or Century), but every 2-year college in Minnesota has a Student Senate that, by state law, is the official representative of that college’s students. Together, those senates form MSCSA; theirs is the mission to make education better on behalf of the students of their colleges.

As life goes, some of the most important turning points we experience in life can be forgotten in the shadow of their aftermath, so it was with that first meeting. “I don’t even remember my first meeting,” she reflects. It wouldn’t be until a few months later that “the bug” would seize her.

photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker.Kayley Schoonmaker representing the Iron Range at the State Capitol.
photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker.Kayley Schoonmaker representing the Iron Range at the State Capitol.

That moment was MSCSA’s Advocacy Day 2012. The mission was to bring the state’s student leaders to the capital in droves. And come they did. Over 100 eager students from around the state assembled in the cafeteria at St. Paul College, and Kayley was in the swarm. They were talking about things she had only heard of in civics, about change, about making a difference.

Among other accomplishments the lobbying done at the capital that weekend would help ensure the critical maintenance needs of the MSCSA member colleges wouldn’t be forgotten in the great legislative kerfuffle that was the 2012 election year.

She was plunged into a passionate world of policy, legislators, and action; real change achieved through working with real politicians in the marbled halls of the state capital. It was more than could be promised by any course or program back at Itasca, and a not-even 20-yearld girl from the little Iron Range town of Pengilly, was, “Completely drawn in…It was mystifying, it was like crazy, like, what are these students doing… The buzz from the event had her, as she says, “Walking around the halls of Itasca, feeling like I was flying.” She had the bug.

A couple months later she’d be sucked in even further. Schoonmaker was sitting in the ballroom at the Breezy Point resort attending MSCSA’s General Assembly. The nominations call for MSCSA’s Governing Council came up. She waited patiently for someone to volunteer, yet no one did. Finally another student whispered, “Kayley, do it. Do it, raise your hand.” Her response? “Who? Me?”

Fatefully, Schoonmaker raised her hand, soon progressing from a nomination to a successful election, making her a representative on MSCSA’s Governing Council. Her work in strengthening the collaboration of the campuses in MSCSA’s North Eastern region would earn her recognition as Governing Council member of the year. “I frickin’ rocked it,” she remembers now. At the awards ceremony she had held the plaque, short of breath, “the greatest honor… just shaken right now… I can’t thank all of you enough.”

As the end of a seminal year in a young girl’s life approached, thoughts of the future came to a head, with a little more help from friends. Working on a paper, Schoonmaker went to then-president Steve Sabin for an interview. The conversation turned to her future ambitions in the organization. Schoonmaker, busy at Itasca, thought she might spend another year on the governing council, and told Steve as much. “Kayley,” he said, “You could do so much more than that, you should run for a cabinet position.”

Naturally these activities demand skills, proficiencies and knowledge they wouldn’t likely have picked up in high school, or college for that matter.

photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker. Kayley Schoonmaker addresses a crowd
photo courtesy of Kayley Schoonmaker. Kayley Schoonmaker addresses a crowd

For a 19-year-old scheming to represent 100,000 some students before numerous politicians and bureaucrats that unusual situation of high demand and limited experience meant some improvisation was in order. As the April 2013 General Assembly and its elections approached, Schoonmaker labored over her campaign. She signed up for YouTube, made a campaign video, printed fliers and started a Facebook page, among other efforts. Of inexperience she says, “Fake it till you make it!”

When the day came for her peers to select a Vice President, Schoonmaker spoke her ideals. “I feel like I’m really living for greater things,” she told them. Standing before the assembly, she spoke of passion, of “giving back to the organization,” and of plans for the future. The competition was earnest, but she won her votes.

A year of hard work followed. Prime on the docket were the same issues that had plagued students for years:

As Vice President, Schoonmaker was representing students at the level she wanted to work at. She flitted from committee to politician to bureaucrat, filling her year with activism. She also attended the monthly conferences, meeting regularly with the body of students that brought about and witnessed her election.

Guiding the neophyte executive then was MSCSA’s latest president, a 36 year old mother and multi-degree student, Kelly Charpentier-Berg. As president, Charpentier-Berg was the foremost member of the board, meeting regularly with the other cabinet members. Her proximity and shared interest in improving higher education made her eventual bond with Schoonmaker both natural and inevitable. Her enthusiasm meshed well with Charpentier-Berg ideals. Charpentier-Berg remembers, “We ended up like sisters… I played mentor big sister and she taught me quite a bit.”

Many others helped too: MSCSA’s staff, her friends, and more swirled through Schoonmaker life, leaving their mark.

MSCSA’s electoral mechanism had taken imperfect humans, people who in the past had struggled, made bad decisions, or been wronged, then fused them into a cohesive unit with a clear, American mission. It was a desirable situation; living up to the ideals of the organization, and Schoonmaker would need the experience for the next adventure, her own presidency, an inevitable goal.

As the Spring General Assembly approached, Schoonmaker was nervous again, and she wasn’t alone. It was a time of change, of eulogy and ambition, bringing tears as old members said their goodbyes even as newer members took their place.

As student leaders of every stripe lined up for the open positions they littered the resort with their campaign materials, democratic flotsam and jetsam at odds with MSCSA’s usual policy of keeping their chartered venues pristine of debris. Schoonmaker’s own arsenal included buttons, candy and small packages of gum, all adorned with mottos and mantras, “Stick with Kayley,” “Because YOU matter.” Candidates milled about, telling anyone who would listen of their vision for the future of public higher education.

The election competition was tough; passion bolstered by experiences scarcely plausible a few years earlier made the difference in deciding who would next lead MSCSA. That’s the scene in an organization with a strong foundation of ideals and no ceiling to obstruct initiative.

Now, as she carries out her presidency in 2014, she has what she wanted, more than she expected, better than before. Now when she wakes up to face the day, she takes a better answer to the question she asked herself three years before.

What will I do with my life?