If you go down to the Derby Dining Center on Friday evenings at 5:30 p.m., you might hear snippets of piano playing anything from the big band song “Putting on the Ritz” to classic Disney songs from “Mulan” and “Frozen” to Aerosmith songs.
These are the piano musings of Stephen Kucera, senior in music performance and accounting. Since the first Friday night of the fall semester of his freshman year, Kucera has regularly performed during the Friday dinner rushes, providing entertainment for the dining center’s students after long weeks of classes.
Such is Kucera’s talent that over the past few years, he has played piano with pomp and circumstance for over 25 commencement ceremonies for six of the university’s nine colleges.
“How many people can say that they’ve played for a basketball stadium full of thousands of people?” Kucera said. “I won’t tell people that it’s graduation, but how many people can say that?”
However, in one week, Kucera will be noticeably absent at the piano bench at two ceremonies because he will instead be walking twice across the stage to receive two diplomas — one from the College of Arts and Sciences and one from the College of Business Administration — after a five-year undergraduate career.
Kucera is far from just a talented piano player, as his skills on the piano might be the simplest aspect of his character, if not the most pronounced. Rather, Kucera’s legacy as a K-Stater is perhaps best measured by the thousands of students whose lives he has impacted and touched during his tenure as a student leader at K-State.
Pat Bosco, vice president for student life and dean of students and mentor to Kucera, said Kucera’s impact reverberates throughout campus and the Manhattan community.
“He’s a very feeling individual and cares a great deal about people,” Bosco said. “He’s one of those connectors that goes out of his way to bring people together.”
“He does that purposefully,” Bosco continued. “He’ll sit with someone who’s quiet or alone in the residence halls. He’ll approach someone in the Student Union who’s maybe studying by him or herself. He just has that way about him to want to seek out others who may not be in the mainstream. Sometimes when that happens, you hear things that no one else hears, and Stephen does that very well.”
Stephen the “underdog”
During interviews and conversations with Kucera, flashes of a quirky personality shine through Kucera’s more professional demeanor when he stops mid-statement to make quips about the subject matter.
In similar fashion, Kucera’s modest, business professional attire (if casual, then typically purple) suggests a man proud of his actions, yet humble in self-reflection.
“That’s my job (as a student leader),” Kucera said. “That’s what people expect I dress up like.”
These mannerisms reflect Kucera’s rootedness in a background of adversity. Kucera said he came from a homeschooled background that was “sheltered at best,” and early bouts with disease and sickness left a mark on him.
“Back when I was 3, I was given some allergy medicine that paralyzed my legs for 24 hours,” Kucera said. “The side effects eventually wore off, but at first, they thought I’d never walk again. Then they said I wouldn’t be able to run, then they said I’d have breathing problems and wouldn’t be able to run far.”
Since then, Kucera has run several 5Ks and finished two half-marathons, but other ailments have followed him throughout his life, said Anna Kucera, his sister and junior in biological systems engineering.
“When he was gradually diagnosed with that, our family just kind of binded behind him to help him achieve and go places,” Anna Kucera said. “That was a big part of growing up, just helping him. I think he’s an underdog from his background. If you looked at him, you’d think he’s a highly healthy individual, whereas all his struggles, you can’t really see.
“It made him, you know, willing to get down in the dirt and fight for himself and others,” Anna Kucera said. “Not necessarily himself all the time, but he knows what other people can go through.”
When he first arrived to K-State, Stephen Kucera said his experiences deeply shaped his perspective.
“I came to college, and I came from the perspective of an underdog, from the neighborhood I grew up, from some of the experiences I had growing up,” Kucera said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to put all that behind me, and I’m going to work hard, and I’m going to make something of myself to show that someone who came from my background — my experiences — could make something of themselves and be a leader.”
However, Kucera soon found that even hard work was not always enough to accomplish goals.
“What I did my freshman year is I worked incredibly hard,” Kucera said. “I got involved with a ton of things. I worked harder than a lot of people in those organizations.”
During that year, Kucera ran for election as a senator from the College of Arts and Sciences, but only the top 18 candidates received seats in the senate. Kucera was 20th, just nine votes shy of coming in 18th.
“That was a tough pill to swallow, because I come from a blue-collar background where if you work hard, you succeed,” Kucera said. “You work hard, you have good skills and therefore you accomplish more and you’re rewarded for it. But that’s not the way that it happened around here.”
Still, Kucera persevered, and he found himself stepping into whatever roles he could.
“What I did over the next few years is I did continued to do what I do best — I knew how to say yes to the different things that people threw my way and they weren’t glamorous positions, like parking citations appeals committee,” Kucera said. “Not many students want to serve on that.”
“I never saw that a position was below me,” Kucera continued, “so people began to count on me to come in and fill those roles — to step in and do a better job than most other people would — because even though it may not have been my first choice, I was focused and I was motivated to do the best with the authority that people placed in me.”
About a month after the first failed election, two senate seats opened up after the senators were appointed to other roles, and that began Kucera’s senate career in the Student Governing Association.
A record of student service
“We almost take the quality of our student leadership for granted here at the university,” Bosco said. “The care, passion and responsiveness of our student leadership is simply second to none. Stephen from day one has exemplified that sort of sincere commitment to doing things right.”
During his career in the student senate, Kucera said he made it a point of reaching beyond the walls of the Big 12 Room in the Student Union, which is where senate meetings are held.
“A lot of times, I think students elect representatives and they don’t see them again until it’s election time, but I wanted to be involved in students’ lives and make sure that they knew that somebody cared about them and somebody was listening to their stories,” Kucera said.
Kucera, who finished his term as speaker pro tempore of the student senate in April, looked back at the arc of his senate career, highlighting an increasing emphasis on diversity during his tenure.
“You can look at some vote totals over the last semester and see that we have some work to do, but I think people are more receptive to those issues now than they ever were,” Kucera said. “When I came into student government my freshman year, diversity was never something we really talked about. We were a body that talked about allocations bills and privilege fees and tuition.”
As time went on, Kucera and other senators began talking about other issues, specifically diversity.
Since then, Kucera has had a hand in crafting much of the senate’s legislation speaking out in support of the university’s minority and marginalized students. Earlier this semester, the senate passed a resolution stating solidarity with K-State’s transgender community.
“A lot of people from LGBT community and senators were surprised and thankful it got passed unanimously,” Kucera said. “That’s where we came from, from it not being talked about at all to background conversations to having legislation on the floor and committees.”
“Champion of the underrepresented”
Bosco said Kucera exemplifies the traits of any great student leader who takes into account the students who are often marginalized.
“Those traits include a genuine sense of ownership, of willingness to put in the time to process and to listen to a whole bunch of students who sometimes have no voice,” Bosco said. “Stephen is a champion of those who are underrepresented, who sometimes feel disenfranchised. He is an advocate for not only them, but for the general student body.”
Bosco admitted that K-State has needed to improve in terms of diversity, but credited Kucera with working to increase the university’s inclusiveness.
“He has been an advocate for the university to be better when it comes to inclusion, and I think that we’ve responded in a purposeful, meaningful way,” Bosco said. “We can always do better and we will, and Stephen has helped move the needle during his time here.”
In an email interview, Bill Harlan, director of the Office of Student Activities and Services and SGA adviser, said Stephen led those efforts by example and by “doing the little things and doing them right.”
“I think one of the issues that Stephen has worked hard on is to improve the diversity of SGA,” Harlan said. “Making sure that students who don’t currently have a voice in the room have someone who will voice their concerns.”
Kucera said participating in student government has been a lesson on the concept of privilege.
“A lot of times, people of privilege don’t understand the experience of people who may not have the same privilege as them until they put themselves in a situation where they are in the minority or where they feel like they have fewer opportunities because of the intersectionality of some persona that they identify with,” Kucera said.
“Coming into college, I was very aware of that,” Kucera continued. “Coming into freshman year, I didn’t have a group of friends that I could mesh with. I didn’t have people that wanted to hang out, people that were those natural go-tos when I needed help on stuff.”
In response, Kucera made it a point to be that person for other students. His early efforts focused on reaching out to students in Derby Dining Center, the same building he played piano at every week.
Abby Zimmerman, junior in entrepreneurship, said she first met Kucera at the dining center.
“It was maybe my first or second day on campus, and he was playing songs from ‘Wicked’ at the Derb,” Zimmerman said in an email interview. “I also play piano (though not nearly as well) and love the musical, so I walked over and said hi. We ended up really connecting and started hanging out.”
Kucera’s willingness to reach out to students is what he will be remembered by, Zimmerman said.
“I feel like Stephen will be known for a lot of things, but if I have to choose one, I think it will be for giving a voice to the voiceless,” Zimmerman said. “Stephen works exceptionally hard to increase diversity, equality, inclusion and understanding.”
Kucera said he heard stories and perspectives that deeply impacted him, hearing from students who were choosing between buying textbooks and buying food, or other students who were contemplating physical harm or suicide.
“I came to the senate from those perspectives and those stories, so when I looked at bills, I came at them from those perspectives,” Kucera said. “I felt I was able to channel the stories of 24,000 students instead of just the people or friend groups I grew up with.”
“There was tension”
Even at the student level, politics came into play when Kucera dealt with other senators.
“There was tension,” Kucera said. “Innately, people don’t want to talk about what’s uncomfortable. They don’t want to talk about the fact that they may not be the most qualified to make a decision on a particular issue without talking to other individuals.”
Kucera pointed to his conversations with students at K-State as examples of the people not being heard or represented in the senate.
“There are people out there that have faced significant struggles to get to K-State, let alone to stay here or feed themselves or to make it day-to-day with different struggles, mentally or emotionally,” Kucera said. “People don’t want to hear that.”
As the senate works to increase its diversity, Kucera said he may have missed opportunities due to his not belonging to a fraternity or other “privileged groups on campus.”
“My decision not to join some of the privileged groups on campus definitely hurt my chances for leadership positions,” Kucera said.
In the senate, Kucera emphasized individual student stories and the failure of some senators to take responsibility for representing their constituents.
“Do you think that sitting in the back row of senate watching a basketball game or being on Twitter or Facebook that that’s the best way to make a decision that affects the lives of 24,000 students?” Kucera said. “I didn’t think so, so I turned up the heat on that occasionally.”
“I didn’t set out to be a galvanizing figure or somebody who changed the conversation,” Kucera continued, “but I just saw something that needed to be talked about or needed to be done, and I just rolled my sleeves up and did it. It’s something I’ve done in the past, and it’s something I look forward to continue doing in the future.”
Stephen the student
Although Kucera distinguished himself as a student leader and friend to the student body, he has not been immune to the stresses and struggles of college. In fact, ordinary academic and social stresses afflicted him heavily given the nature of his levels of involvement and leadership.
“People see him as high-achieving when he actually shouldn’t be doing half of what he’s doing, and he should be getting way more rest than he actually gets. It’s self-sacrifice,” Anna Kucera said. “Academics are a challenge for any student, but when you’re highly involved, it gets really difficult.”
And in extending friendship to the students he meets, Stephen Kucera has not always seen that same level of support extended to him.
“Being that busy, sometimes you struggle with loneliness,” Anna Kucera said. “He’s so focused on working with others, but sometimes, it seems like the world isn’t necessarily there for him. I know that sometimes he struggles with that.”
One outlet for Stephen Kucera’s stress has been figure skating.
“He is an awesome figure skater,” Anna Kucera said. “He was one level below nationals when he was 14. He still has the skill. Over Christmas break, he was still landing his triples after not skating for six months. That’s one way he deals with stress — he skates when he has chances.”
“Music has also been an outlet for him,” Anna Kucera said. “He can’t figure skate all the time — the rink is not 24/7 out here … with music, he can express frustration, love of learning and just relaxation.”
Bosco said Stephen Kucera takes an intellectual approach to life.
“Stephen is a very confident man, I consider him kind of a renaissance guy,” Bosco said. “He has an interest in so many things, from math and science to music.”
Bosco said he and Kucera occasionally trade books on topics such as leadership and diversity.
“There are not many K-State students,” Bosco said with a chuckle, “that will go back and forth with a book or two with the vice president and dean of a major university.”
Kucera the graduate
Since “retiring” from the senate, Kucera has found new activities to fill his now-vacated Thursday nights, including attending a scholarship banquet and playing the organ. He even went to the Jon Bellion concert on April 27.
“I never attended a rock concert or big concert like that, so I’m crossing that off of my bucket list,” Kucera said.
Although Kucera did not run for election this semester, he will return to the Student Governing Association next semester in student body president Jack Ayre’s cabinet as the student support director. In this capacity, Kucera said he will work on two main initiatives: the beginnings of the campus food pantry and lobbying for the creation of a university-wide, needs-based scholarship program.
However, as Kucera prepares to tackle graduate school to earn a master’s degree in accounting — Bosco called this Kucera’s “victory lap” — those close to him have said he has wondered if his work has made a difference.
“Being a student leader at K-State is oftentimes thankless,” Bosco said. “All of our student leaders at some point are introspective, wondering if anyone cares as they put in the hours and wring their hands over an issue or concern, because they genuinely want to do things right. And sometimes, there’s no easy answers.”
For all of his impact on K-State, the university has had its own impact on Kucera.
“K-State has meant the world to him,” Anna Kucera said. “It’s been a proving ground, a place to make change, to help others, a place of connecting. A place to see the world through others’ eyes. A place to see the world.”
Before returning to K-State next fall, Stephen Kucera — a long-time advocate for studying abroad and the international community — will travel around the world, stopping in countries including Japan, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Iceland, Ecuador and Paraguay.
“(International students) get to see where we’re from, and he’s going to go to their countries and see where they’re from, so he’s going to South Africa, possibly Pakistan, Sweden, Denmark, Ecuador, Japan,” Anna Kucera said. “Places not necessarily on your tourist map.”
Stephen Kucera said he will let someone else decide what his legacy at K-State is. Instead, he reflected on his K-State career with gratitude and appreciation for the people he’s met and all he has accomplished.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Kucera said. “We’re all given certain experiences. We’re all given certain stories. We’re all given certain people that we meet in our journey here at this university, and I believe that we’re given those experiences and journeys for a reason.”
After graduation, Kucera will move on to his international summer trip and year of graduate school. But first, before the trip, before walking across the stages at commencement, Kucera will report to Derby Dining Center, just as he has every Friday evening for the duration of his time at K-State, and he will play his last songs there, at least during his undergraduate career.