Four weeks into his freshman year at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Mike Kenyanya joined the UMD Student Association, the university’s student government. He’s just not sure why.
“I don’t have a good reason on why I joined, but I definitely know why I stayed,” Kenyanya said. “And that’s just seeing the kind of impact, the tangible effects of seeing policies changed or new programs brought to campus - and that stuff is real.”
Despite no prior high school leadership or student government experience, Kenyanya was hooked. He chaired the freshman committee and served as the student body president for two years.
Although Kenyanya, 22, graduates from UMD Saturday with a bachelors of business administration degree in management information systems, he’ll continue to hold a leadership role within the university.
On Thursday, the Minnesota House and Senate unanimously elected him to the student at-large seat on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, an unpaid six-year-term on the board with full voting rights.
“For the past four years, I’ve been driven by serving and being in student leadership positions and trying to help the university better and this was just another way to continue doing that,” Kenyanya said.
As part of the 12-regent board, which oversees the university's policies, programs and budgets, Kenyanya said he wants to prioritize the wellbeing of students by addressing the cost of a college degree, student debt and student mental health. He also wants the university’s five different campuses to feel like one system.
Board of Regents Chair David McMillan said he thinks Kenyanya will do just that.
“It’s really important that as regents, we think about the system as a whole and therein may lie one of the greatest things Mike (Kenyanya) can bring to the board,” McMillan said.
Service to students and the university across the entire system is what drove Kenyanya to apply for the board position.
“It wasn’t about the board specifically, but at that time with the student seat opening up, it’s what made sense to continue that service,” Kenyanya said.
A native of Kenya, Kenyanya immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 5 and grew up in Maple Grove.
McMillan said Kenyanya’s diverse background will strengthen the board.
“We’re a better board when we look like the Minnesota that we represent and the university that we govern,” Chair David McMillan said.
In recent weeks, House Democrats have feuded over who should fill the four vacancies and have postponed votes. Citing the recruitment and retention of minority students, some DFL lawmakers said they wanted more people of color and indigenous candidates on the board.
In addition to Kenyanya’s election to the student at-large seat, members of the House of Representatives and Senate voted Thursday to elect Janie Mayeron for the 5th Congressional District seat and Kao Ly Her and Mary Davenport for two statewide at-large seats.
The election boosts the number of women on the board from two to three, and Her is likely the first Hmong American to serve on the board.
Lisa Erwin, UMD’s vice chancellor for student life, who as worked closely with Kenyanya in the Student Association, said she expects Kenyanya to work tirelessly to represent the needs and interests of not just students but Minnesotans at large.
“He’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever met as a student,” Erwin said. “So not only is he articulate and bright, he's a really careful listener. And that is a real asset for him because he is able to understand things deeply.”
With the board position secured, and his first meeting as a member held early Friday, Kenyanya said he’s moving back home to Maple Grove after graduation and beginning a job search.
Having devoted much of his senior year to campaigning for the student at-large seat on the board, Kenyanya said he had put off searching for a job.
Asked what his dream job would be, Kenyanya said, “Oh, I have no idea. I never thought I’d be on the board so I’m just going to follow it and see what happens.”