After roadblocks of family loss and personal struggles, Mike Kuni finds a place to soar at K-State Polytechnic
When Mike Kuni graduated from the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in May 2019, his jubilation of earning a bachelor's degree extended far beyond the day's pomp and circumstance. Dressed in a cap and gown, moving his tassel, and walking across the stage as his name was called represented, at 45 years of age, both a forever memory and a milestone.
A native of Missoula, Montana, Kuni came from a highly educated family: both his mother and father held master's degrees, his stepfather earned a doctorate, and his brother is a lawyer. Early on, he felt pressure to measure up but he always considered himself the black sheep. In high school, Kuni failed his algebra class three times and in college, at the University of Montana, he was put on academic suspension and eventually quit.
While Kuni was floundering to find his way, 2005 would put him in a tailspin. After 11 years of being sober, his father started drinking again and during a stint in rehab, he died of a heart attack in front of Kuni when he was visiting. A month later, his maternal grandmother passed away and then another loss: his wife left him.
"It felt like I had lost anything that mattered to me. My depression controlled everything and I knew where I was headed," said Kuni.
Where he was headed was following in his father's dangerous footsteps, but in 2011, Kuni had enough of his misery. He began taking stock of his life and during this exploration of a new self, Kuni pondered the question, what makes me happy? He immediately knew the answer: aviation. After leaving college, Kuni had gotten a job at a local Coca-Cola bottling plant and every day on his morning drive, he would see Cessnas flying just above the horizon line as the sun rose. He couldn't help but envy those pilots.
"Against the backdrop of the mountains and valleys, it was so beautiful. What an amazing way to start your day," he would always remark on his dawn commute.
It was settled. Kuni's goal was aviation and his mom, a native of Kansas, found online information about K-State Polytechnic's unmanned aircraft systems program and forwarded it to him. After he opened the email and learned about the career possibility, it was all he could think about.
Kuni was determined to do things right this time around, but he continued to run into obstacles that tested his resolve. Because of his previous challenges in school, Kuni was initially denied entrance into K-State Polytechnic, but was eventually admitted on a trial basis. One of the requirements of the UAS Flight and Operations degree he enrolled in is a private pilot certificate, but he was unable to get approved for the medical certificate needed to fly manned aircraft. Kuni transitioned to the UAS Design and Integration degree, which is rooted in engineering and doesn't require a manned flight certification, and his high school days of struggling with math came flashing back.
"I was so scared," he said.
But Kuni was different this time around. Giving up or going backward was not in his vocabulary. He was adamant about succeeding in the UAS Design and Integration program and was serious about passing the courses that presented him with anxiety. He credits the faculty at K-State Polytechnic with providing the help he needed to thrive.
"I was in my professors' offices five days a week," said Kuni. "It was the support of all of my teachers that got me through."
Eager to build upon his college experience, Kuni also was a student employee in the campus's Applied Aviation Research Center, which conducts nationwide UAS research, beginning his freshman year. He praises his supervisors at the facility for giving him an opportunity to apply what he was learning in the classroom to real industry-related scenarios.
"I would volunteer to go on every field operation. I never looked at it as work – I loved it," said Kuni.
And because of his dedication and diligence, Kuni was awarded with the title of Student Worker of the Year at K-State Polytechnic in both 2018 and 2019.
When he graduated that triumphant day last May, Kuni carried with him real work experience, those coveted student honors and a UAS bachelor's degree with a 3.5 GPA. He also walked across the stage knowing he had accepted a full-time job offer to continue his work at the Applied Aviation Research Center. Most importantly, he celebrated himself.
"If you meet challenges head on with as much force as you can muster, you're going to beat them. It's simplistic to say, but never give up and you'll win every time."
The journey to here had been a long one, complete with disappointing twists and dark turns; the roadblocks so big, at times they seemed insurmountable. But Kuni persevered and repeatedly found a way over life's obstacles. He had turned the arduous route into a runway and at K-State Polytechnic his dreams are taking flight.