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Cooper, volunteer coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area, meets with Phil Cruse, a Bemidji State University senior, as he considers volunteering with the nonprofit. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Thriving under pressure

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Kari Cooper is likely going places. Literally. Between a full credit load at Bemidji State University, a 12-hour-a-week commitment to the student population as one of two Student Senate co-presidents, and a 20-hour-a-week position as the volunteer coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area, Cooper, 21, is constantly on the run.

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“I love being busy,” she said. “I kind of thrive under pressure. For me, that’s when I do my best work.”

Cooper, a junior from Sauk Rapids, chose BSU after visiting the university and connecting with its size, location and energy.

“The minute I stepped on campus, it felt like home,” she said. “The whole campus had a very homey, friendly vibe, and I felt like it would be a good environment to not only focus on my studies, but also easy to get involved with on campus.”

It didn’t take her long.

During freshmen orientation, she was among hundreds of new students who heard from Michael Meehlhause, then a Student Senate co-president, as he addressed the incoming class.

“The general gist of my speech … was get involved in organizations, try some new activities, try to expand your horizons,” Meehlhause recalled.

Days later, Cooper filed as one of five candidates vying for four freshman senator positions; she was elected.

“What really struck me about Kari is how mature she was and how much she was interested in wanting to get involved more, wanting to help the students more,” said Meehlhause, who was co-president when Cooper joined the Student Senate.

This past fall, he heard from Cooper as she prepared herself to give a speech to BSU’s incoming freshmen class.

“She actually texted me beforehand, saying she remembered being a freshman and listening to me speak, thinking, ‘Wow it would be so cool to be co-president and now I actually get to do that,’” Meehlhause said.

Would it surprise him to know that the freshman who joined the Student Senate his senior year now is a co-president?

“No,” he said, “I saw it coming.”

A true Leader

Leadership roles seem to come naturally to Cooper, who served four years on the high school student council, the last year as president.

She was a two-year member of DECA, a competitive marketing club. She went to state both years and qualified for nationals as a senior.

“I never went into anything with the idea like, ‘Oh this would look great on my résumé,’ or, ‘Oh this will build my leadership skills,’” she said. “Everything I did I just did because it was really fun.

“Now I’m definitely more aware of how my involvement can help me and help me grow as a leader and my professional development. But still, everything I do I still have fun with.”

Cooper initially was hired with the Boys & Girls Club in August 2011 through a work-study program to serve as a marketing assistant.

This year, she was promoted to volunteer coordinator.

Her Boys & Girls Club work has solidified her desire to work for nonprofits.

“I have no interest of going into the corporate world at all,” she said. “I guess in high school, because of DECA and all of the stuff we did, the corporate marketing was kind of appealing but at the same time, my senior year, my project was a community service project and we worked with the Muscular Dystrophy Association so I liked that.

“I guess I just feel more fulfilled if what I’m working on, or if what I’m putting my time and energy into, benefits other people. That really is what motivates me.”

That motivation carries into her campus life, where she strives to be the voice for the students.

Cooper, a three-year senator, is serving her first co-presidency this year alongside senior Nick Nelson.

Next year, she will serve as co-president with Jenna Long, now a sophomore. Together, they will mark BSU’s first all-female co-presidency.

Cooper also serves on the Minnesota State University Student Association, which aims to represent the student population enrolled at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

“The piece for MSUSA that I love is that we are advocates for students in the MnSCU system,” Cooper said.

But even as she tried this spring to run for MSUSA president – she lost that election last weekend – Cooper said it is the advocating she enjoys, not the politics.

“I always had fun going on lobby trips to the Capitol, advocating and speaking up to legislators, but I don’t think I’d want to be the person at the Capitol,” she said.

Cooper will graduate with a liberal studies degree and a mass communication minor next spring. After graduation, she plans to pursue a master’s degree, perhaps at the University of Minnesota, with the ultimate goal of working in marketing or public relations with a nonprofit.

“My heart is open to a bunch of open causes,” she said, “so I’m not focused on a certain organization, but I would definitely like to work myself up to being an executive director of a nonprofit someday.”

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