Born in Pullman, Washington, 25-year-old Steven Kotecki has a story to share. Raised in a missionary family, he spent two years living in France before his family moved to the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, an area commonly known as the Ivory Coast. It was in Africa that Steven’s future direction began to take shape.
Growing up with American parents in a different culture helped him to develop a unique perspective at an early age. “At first, while I was living in Africa, I didn’t appreciate my environment,” Steven explained. “I focused on life in the United States and what I was missing. Then, I realized that a lot of what had been important was material, but values are far more important. I really came to admire and respect the people of Africa for their friendliness, work ethic, and strong family values.”
Steven’s father Mike, an Africa Missions Specialist with the international organization The Navigators, said that his son’s early exposure to a multicultural society played an important role in shaping his son’s adulthood. “As a boy growing up in Africa, Steven exhibited a constant ability to relate in two or more worlds and cultures, maintaining strong ties to his Ivorian friends from elementary school all the way through high school. We could see he was going to grow up with a larger world view and relational skills, to say nothing of the foreign language skills that would allow him to succeed in many areas of life.”
Steven attended school at the International Christian Academy, where his classmates included students from North America, as well as students from the local area. It was at school that he met his wife, Shannon. Shannon’s family, originally from Portage, was also doing mission work in Africa.
When he was 18, Steven graduated from high school and returned to the United States where he worked for six months in Seattle. He worked two jobs and then joined the Army Reserve in order to earn money to pay for a college education. In the fall of 2002, he was accepted at Baylor University as a graphic arts major. Steven enrolled in an environmental studies course, which he credits as a turning point in his life. “It made me stop and think about what we do personally and as a society that affects the whole world and its people.” Shortly after this experience Steven was deployed with his Army Reserve unit to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003. “When I left school to go to Afghanistan, I realized how important education was to me and I became even more committed to achieving my goal,” Steven commented.
Upon his return to the United States, Steven joined his girlfriend Shannon, who was living with her family in Portage (they married in 2004). In the spring of 2004, he enrolled at UPJ where he was considering a major in environmental studies. He credits his advisor Dr. Mary Lavine for helping to solidify his choice of majors. Then, after a meeting with Dr. William Kory, he added geography to his plan and declared two majors. “I met Dr. Kory and he shared his experience of being in the Peace Corps and living in Liberia. I knew immediately that I was in the right place and on the right track,” Steven said.
Two years after coming to UPJ, Steven was again deployed to the Middle East, this time serving a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq. During his deployment, he maintained close ties to UPJ. He corresponded with Drs. Lavine and Kory and also received a number of “care packages” from his new UPJ family. Determined to not allow his deployment to derail his goal of a college degree, Steven enrolled in two correspondence courses through the University of Maryland and completed an independent study through Dr. Catharine Kloss. He completed his courses while working 72 hours a week in a leadership position with his unit as a non-commissioned officer in charge of an engineering shop. Looking back, Steven admits that it was one of the most challenging times in his life.
Steven and his family quickly realized that the strong sense of family and commitment to community that they came to appreciate in Africa was also found right here in the Johnstown area. His mother, Karen, explained, “When I came to visit, I was overwhelmed by the people of all ages who had ‘adopted’ him and loved him.” Steven currently resides in Portage with his wife and her family.
When Steven resumed his studies, he became involved in a number of campus organizations, including Campus Ministry. UPJ Campus Minister James Gay noticed Steven’s commitment to his faith and community immediately. “Steve has a spirit of excellence,” commented Reverend Gay. “In the midst of all his life experiences, he remained humble and never boastful, and always put the needs of others ahead of his own. He’s a great person and I’m thankful that he was a part of what we do here.”
Despite two major interruptions to his college career, Steven has managed to remain focused and excel academically. In addition to graduating Summa Cum Laude, Steven received several honors. He was named a College Scholar in Environmental Studies and also received the Dr. Robert J. Hunter Scholarship Award, which annually recognizes a student who demonstrates significant potential for graduate study and who is inclined toward a career in public service. He has also been named a University Scholar, and has been inducted into Phi Kappa Phi and Gamma Theta Upsilon.
Steven’s educational journey will not end with his graduation from UPJ. He has been accepted into the University of Florida’s graduate program in geography, where he will concentrate in African development and Arabic. Dr. Kory boasted, “Steven’s academic success as an undergraduate has earned him a full scholarship to an extremely competitive program.”
Upon graduation, Steven plans to return to Africa and continue the work that his parents started several years ago. “There are many misconceptions about Africa,” Steven offered. “People think that it’s a daunting place, always at war and full of poverty. Although there is widespread poverty, that is only a small part of the story. Africa has stable governments and is making great strides towards economic progress.”
Steven’s commitment to global citizenship and education is something that is shared by other members of the Kotecki family. His younger brother, Kevin, earned a dual degree in French and international studies and is working with the citizens of Kenya to build their economy. His oldest sister Stephanie is currently completing her law degree at the University of Washington, and his sister Kristine has just received a full scholarship to pursue her PhD in African literature at the University of Texas.
Steven’s life experiences have taught him many lessons and provided him with a perspective that belies his years. “As Americans, we have a tendency to get into something, put our heads down, and drive right through it without stopping. I want to suggest that people take a day out of their week and not do anything that seems like work. We make better decisions and are happier when we are rested. As much we don’t like to hear it, doing something well and worthwhile does not happen overnight. You have to develop an attitude like an athlete who works every day, when it feels good and when it hurts, always having your goal in mind.”
When asked what advice he would offer to someone just beginning college, Steven answered, “Take interest! Even if you are taking a class just because it is required, find some aspect of the class that you can apply to something that interests you. It is easier to go to class, to pay attention, and to do well if you think in terms of applying the subject to you, rather than as a means to an end.”
In announcing the selection of Steven as one of the commencement speakers, UPJ President Jem Spectar stated, “Steven is an amazing young man. Through his extensive list of impressive accomplishments, he has demonstrated commitment to his community and his fellow man, and served as an inspiration to those around him. His message to his fellow graduates will certainly inspire them and further their awareness of the important issues facing our global society.”
Commencement addresses are an opportunity for graduates to gain first-hand perspective on life in the real world, beyond the boundaries of their college campus. This year’s graduating class has the great fortune to hear such a message delivered from one of their peers, Steven Kotecki, someone who is ready for the real world, indeed.