Lincoln, Neb. —Kayla Vondracek’s journey to a Nebraska U degree — which included wading into rivers for research, clinching journalism awards and producing her own app — was an experience unlike any other.
Through her environmental studies major, Vondracek forged connections within the University of Nebraska–Lincoln community. And, those interactions led to new projects and pursuits.
Her first foray into immersive University of Nebraska–Lincoln experiences came during summer 2019, when Vondracek took part in the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience program. She worked alongside Jessica Corman, assistant professor of natural resources, and a fellow undergraduate collecting and studying algae samples from the Niobrara River.
The UCARE project allowed her to get hands-on experience in fieldwork — and sometimes, even head-below as she dipped and dived into the Niobrara to collect samples.
“I’d have pretty much my whole head under the water sometimes just really trying to get a good sample,” Vondracek said.
‘I didn’t limit myself’
After dipping her toes — figuratively and literally — into fieldwork, she pivoted to a different avenue of environmental studies by taking part in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s depth reporting course on climate change. She had no experience in journalism, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing a new passion.
“I was like, ‘Sure, why not? I’ll give it a try,’” Vondracek said.
Her article on eco-anxiety, co-written with Aila Ganić, was named a finalist in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Mark of Excellence Awards.
Not long after the climate change course ended in 2020, Vondracek added app developer to her growing list of experiences.
She launched the app, The Canopy, through a Change-Maker scholarship from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. The app is intended to connect members of a community to different environmental and sustainability resources within their city — putting them all under one big virtual canopy.
Vondracek completed the app development on her own. After months of work — and with a beta-version already completed — she has submitted it to app stores and is waiting until it becomes approved and available for all.
“I pretty much worked on that like all at the end of last semester and then early this semester, which is not something I ever thought I’d be doing or would know how to do, but it just kind of started working out,” she said.
Vondracek’s list of pursuits kept her schedule full — especially alongside her coursework and responsibilities at internships with the Josyln Institute, the Lincoln Health Department and JEO Consulting.
But though her days were long, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I definitely didn’t limit myself with the opportunities I tried out throughout the four years,” Vondracek said. “I’ve always been really open to try new opportunities and really explore what I want to do.”
‘It really is just kind of surreal for me’
Receiving a degree means a lot to Vondracek. It’s the culmination of four years of hard work — and something that seemed so far off when she first started.
When she came to Nebraska, the non-traditional student tried to ease back into school, all while adapting to living in a city with a population that is nearly 200 times bigger than her hometown of Salem, South Dakota. Sometimes she’d catch herself thinking, “What did I get myself into?” But as the days and weeks wore on, those feelings drifted away.
“It definitely got easier as I just kept going through the semesters,” Vondracek said. “And I just am so comfortable now with Lincoln.”
Vondracek also feels a point of pride in being the first member of her family to receive a bachelor’s degree.
“I just can’t even believe where I’m at today and all the things that I’ve accomplished,” Vondracek said. “I tried really hard to just kind of push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.”
Vondracek came to Nebraska only expecting to earn a degree. Instead, she found a community that offered invaluable support along every step of the way. And, she credits faculty Corman, John Hay, Tala Awada, Dave Gosselin, Joe Starita, Jennifer Sheppard, Lauryn Higgins and Chrstine Haney Douglass for helping her reach the graduation stage.
“I love this town, and love UNL,” Vondracek said.