Curiosity and common purpose
Kenny Andejeski’12 came to Beloit to become a high school football coach. He left committed to finding common purpose in community and to a life shaped by curiosity.
“Fitting in as a kid was a problem,” says Kenny Andejeski’12. “I was bright but had difficulty focusing. Football gave me a sense of belonging and purpose. That made Beloit an easy choice for college; I’d be able to play football from my first semester on.”
Beloit’s curriculum initially took a back seat. Kenny relates, “I wasn’t particularly ambitious when I started college, other than knowing I wanted to play football. My plan was to stick with the familiar: study history, become a teacher, and coach high school football.”
In his first semester, however, he discovered that Beloit’s liberal arts give students opportunities to explore before settling on a major. Students can also tailor their studies to their personal interests.
Kenny tried history and education, in keeping with his original career plan, then psychology and philosophy. None ignited his imagination, however worthwhile. Then, in his sophomore year, sociology hit home.
“Sociology helps you understand how people work in groups and, on a broader scale, society. That resonated with me because of my experience in team sports and my difficulties fitting in throughout childhood.”
Equipped with an academic lens, Kenny sought to understand why sports meant so much to him. How do teams develop a shared identity? How do their members work toward common goals? Sports and belongingness would be the focus of many of his sociology papers. He added an environmental studies minor to explore belongingness in the context of the built and natural world.
Today, questions he learned to ask at Beloit drive Kenny’s work as he helps communities find common purpose and shared identity to address challenging societal issues. He is particularly interested in the American heartland, often overlooked or misunderstood by outsiders. Currently based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the clients Kenny works with include non-profits, start-ups, foundations, and civic organizations. One strategy is to create change through narrative using storytelling; a project undertaken in South Bend serves as an example. He also provides social impact mentoring to community leaders and young professionals.
Kenny explains, “I foundedWhy [Here] Matters because I’d been helped and embraced at various points in my life by people and communities who scarcely knew me and lacked the privileges I carry, whether by virtue of skin color, gender, education, nationality, or another marker. Belongingness is essential to individual and societal health. I’m thus deeply indebted to residents of Detroit who embraced me when I moved there to take a fellowship after a year spent teaching English in China. I was an outsider, but that didn’t matter. Detroiters wanted to get to know me, and I wanted to get to know them.”
Kenny did not leave Beloit as an entrepreneur intent on founding a company. Instead, he thought he’d work for a non-profit organization. To gain the prerequisite experience, after graduating in 2012, he joined AmeriCorps VISTA as a volunteer to help the University of Massachusetts Boston develop campus-community-based partnerships. Living in voluntary poverty, he also coached track and field to continue to connect social purpose with sports.
Kenny’s life was upended, however, when an arrest and felony charge made continuing with AmeriCorps impossible. Eventually exonerated, in the meantime he needed both an income and distance. A job teaching English in China beckoned. Although he had not studied abroad while at Beloit, knew neither China nor Chinese, nor had ever taught English, he was not intimidated. After all, throughout his time at Beloit, he had embraced opportunities to try new things, meet people seemingly unlike him, and have his ideas and preconceptions challenged. He’d also learned to embrace diversity in many forms.
A rewarding year in China did not erase the taint of his arrest, however. Employers did not want to risk hiring him when he returned to Boston. He would have to find his own way. That proved liberating: Kenny’s next years would not only be formative, but lead to the founding of Why [Here] Matters.
First, Kenny spent two plus years in bankrupt Detroit as a Challenge Detroit fellow, tasked with connecting local non-profits with residents. The aim? Empower both to work together to make positive change in the city. The lessons he learned about community connection and resilience guide him today.
Next, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Kenny embarked on a three-year journey through all U.S. 50 states to better understand the state of U.S. society and support local community leaders along the way. For a year, he also led a community of similarly oriented travelers across 24 countries and six continents. His time in China had qualified him for the job, as had Beloit College’s focus on building capacity for life-long learning.
Kenny is curious by nature, interested in people, and gregarious, all of which contribute to the ambitions and promise of Why [Here] Matters. But Beloit, he says, played a large part. It was there that he acquired the career readiness skills essential for his work: the confidence needed to invent a job for himself, the intellectual framework that guides his work, and the listening and speaking skills essential to community building. Beloit also nurtured his creativity and entrepreneurship and offered multiple opportunities to leave his comfort zone. Why [Here] Matters would not exist if not for these.
Leaving his comfort zone at Beloit included taking a feminisms course recommended to him when he was a junior. “Most of the other students were female-identifying first-years openly sharing their experiences. That and my ignorance of the topic made for some uncomfortable moments. I learned a lot.”
He played intramural ultimate frisbee when he found time; if he wanted to know other students, frisbee was a good way to do it. Frisbee would also help him make connections when he taught in China.
Kenny had also joined and eventually co-captained Beloit’s track team despite his relative lack of speed. Coach Bliese encouraged him to try out and mentored him when he became captain.
“Coach Bliese would patiently listen to an idea I had, let me try it, then work with me to figure out what went well and what didn’t. Over time, I not only got better at leading the team, but grew into other leadership roles as Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) President and Board Co-Chair for the Midwest Conference SAAC.” Both representative bodies aim to give student-athletes a voice in their collegiate experiences.
Although Kenny is a decade out from his time at Beloit College, his takeaways hold true for both current and future students.
“Beloit gives students the safety they need to take risks, make and learn from mistakes, and exercise creativity. I also really benefited from the individualized attention given to students by its faculty and coaches. I was still very unfinished and incomplete when I graduated from Beloit. But when my life turned upside down a year after graduating, I had the resolve, skills, and faith in myself needed to forge ahead.”
To learn more about Kenny’s journey, view the TEDx talk he gave at Beloit a year after the felony charge changed the course of his life.
Additionally, in the spirit of Why [Here] Matters, follow updates about Beloit College’s nascent community engagement and outreach center, recipient of a $9 million grant to strengthen ties between the college and the residents of its namesake city.