Kansas State culture spread to local communities through new student group

President Richard Linton talks alongside junior Kady Figge and graduate student Mark Estares at the first Connected 'Cats event. This community visit took place in Manhattan for the Flint Hills region. (Carter Schaffer | Collegian Media Group)

President Linton’s initiative, Connected ‘Cats, aims to share Kansas State University culture with communities across the state. 

“Most importantly it is about relationship building — relationship building with our 105 counties, relationship building with our great leaders through cooperative extension,” Linton said during the Flint Hills community visit. “It is also about being able to re-engage after COVID and to be able to work on a challenge that is very important to all of us, especially the Manhattan region, which is student enrollment.”

Mary Tolar, faculty leader in Connected ‘Cats, said the group is a way to feature student voices by allowing K-State students to share their stories and highlight K-State’s connection to local communities. 

The Office of the President is visiting nine Kansas communities this year, according to the  Regional Community Visits webpage.  During each visit, two Connected ‘Cats students serve as event leaders whose roles are to tell their K-State stories and help lead the day’s events, according to the webpage. Tolar said each event leader will have a connection to the host community they visit.  

“This is an opportunity for [the event leaders] to act on their commitment both to their university experience and also to their home communities and highlight those connections,” Tolar said. 

The student experience is a central part of the new presidential initiative, according to the Connected ‘Cats webpage

Stacia Mendoza, senior in finance and an event leader for the greater Kansas City area, said being an event leader allows her to share K-State with her community. 

“I think it’s a great way to kinda, combine the two biggest communities in my life — my hometown, Kansas City, but then also my home currently: Manhattan, Kansas,” Mendoza said.

Tolar said the event leaders start each visit with a community open forum.

“That is where the two Connected ‘Cats event leads will share their story,” Tolar said. “They help lead that forum with the president.”  

After the forum, various sessions will be held in the community throughout the day. 

“We lift up different partnerships focusing on community areas of community need or interest,” Tolar said.

For example, the schedule for visiting Ford County this past Tuesday included sessions focused on preparing the local workforce, informing people about the watershed and preparing and responding to disasters, according to the Ford County Visit Schedule.

The day ends with an event named “Calling All ‘Cats,” Tolar said.

“During the Calling All ‘Cats session and in the community forum, we try to connect with local alumni and also prospective students to share the student experience,” Tolar said. 

Connected ‘Cats students also participate in a zero-credit hour class taught by Tolar, Emily Lenhing, director of the presidential regional community visit initiative and Jeff Ebeck, a senior in finance and economics. This class meets for one hour every week to help structure the group, Tolar said. 

“We prepare for the visits by doing research on the different communities and the partnerships with K-State,” Tolar said. “We also develop and refine skills around facilitating, convening, hosting and storytelling.”

The class focuses on learning from the information gathered in the communities, Tolar said. 

“Following up on what we learn in the community visits, especially around opportunities for future engagement is an important part of the initiative,” Tolar said. “Connected ‘Cats help capture conversations and work with members of the core planning team and the Office of Engagement to connect and share interest and opportunity with colleagues across the university.”

Totty Norwood, junior in English and Connected ‘Cats member, said she has grown to love K-State through this program. 

“I didn’t come from a K-State family,” Norwood said. “I just have such a big love for K-State now, especially since being a part of Connected ‘Cats, because the president really is pushing this initiative forward, talking about not only rising enrollment numbers but wanting to share, again, that K-State story.”

Both Norwood and Tolar said they are excited for the future of Connected ‘Cats.

“This is the first year of this initiative but the expectation is that this continues and so we’re looking forward to having the Connected ‘Cats grow and evolve as a student group,” Tolar said.