UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Maintaining your level of involvement on campus during a pandemic is difficult no matter who you are, but for senior Zachary McKay, the level of stress and commitment is taken up a notch. As the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) president as well as a member of the Presidential Leadership Academy and Navy ROTC, McKay has his hands full this fall semester.
However, he’s taking everything in stride.
“It helps to keep things in perspective,” he said. “I’m a student first, so the goal is to learn as much as I can, both in and out of my classes. It’s a lot more manageable to tackle each of these through the lens of learning to become a better leader and advocate, both personally and professionally, and then integrate what I learn into future experiences — whether on land or sea. Consistent sleep, exercise, time outdoors, time set aside to think, and physically distant time with friends and loved ones help a lot, too.”
Although he’s now an economics major, McKay initially came to Penn State to study acting in the School of Theatre. As time went on, he added economics as a second major, only to realize that his combined involvement with student government, the Presidential Leadership Academy, and Navy ROTC were proving to be too much of a time commitment, forcing him to solely major in economics and minor in theatre, political science, and military studies.
“Someday, I could see myself teaching economics or even law to the next generation of students,” McKay said. “Practicing law also interests me a good deal.”
Beyond an interest in economics and theatre, McKay is also extremely passionate about leadership. Through the Navy ROTC and his participation in the Presidential Leadership Academy, he has been able to learn a lot about different styles of leadership, which has helped him greatly both as student body president and as a leader for his fellow midshipmen.
“Both the Presidential Leadership Academy and the NROTC have given me opportunities to delve into organizational leadership, as well as learn about leadership styles from some of history’s most well-known leaders,” he said. “Specifically, the Presidential Leadership Academy has helped me develop and refine a personal leadership philosophy, and the NROTC has helped me integrate that philosophy into leading my fellow midshipmen, and someday, sailors at sea in not only achieving success, but in becoming better leaders themselves, too.”
While he has extensively studied leadership throughout his time at Penn State, McKay also has utilized the lessons he’s learned as a student in the College of the Liberal Arts in order to become an even stronger leader. Namely, he’s been able to see just how much the world is connected.
“The College of the Liberal Arts has helped me recognize the intersectionality of our world much more clearly,” McKay said. “For example, it’s enabled me to see how philosophical thought impacts economic systems, how historical events affect current political climates, and how world cultures intertwine with our own in great harmony. Ultimately, it’s allowed me to see that we all have much more in common with each other than we often like to think — a necessary realization if we’re to grow in mutual respect and civility for others in society.”
Through all of his hard work, McKay has proven that he has the drive, determination, and leadership capabilities that are necessary in order to lead UPUA through a global pandemic. While the ins and outs of Penn State’s student government will have to transition almost completely online this semester, his goals for the 15th assembly are just as extensive as they would be without the added pressures of social distancing.
“My greatest goal is to rededicate the student government to the principles of justice, inclusion, anti-racism, honesty, and transparency for all future time,” McKay said. “I also intend to expand and solidify the UPUA’s outreach and genuine connection with the student body and reduce inefficiencies, redundancies, and inequities in its organizational structure and processes and ensure that these changes ensure the organization’s members are held accountable for becoming and remaining stronger advocates on behalf of their fellow students.”
For Penn State students who are looking to make an impact, McKay’s advice is this: Take advantage of opportunities while you still have them, and always ask for help when you need it.
“I’ve learned to always take a chance to develop myself, both personally and professionally, and reach out when I need help,” he said. “You won’t always get the chance to attend that leadership conference, and you won’t always get that chance to fly across the globe and explore new cultures. Take the chance to grow and try something new at every turn. Others are there to help you along the way, too — reach out when you find yourself struggling to do better.”