Doane Magazine Web Exclusive: Wave of the future
Kennerly Benraty ’18 is going places.
He’s as cool, confident and sure of this as he is comfortable in his own skin.
It’s not just that he says it. It’s how.
He holds his chin like a philosopher. He theorizes about the world around him.
Speaking comes naturally to him, and Kennerly doesn’t waste a precious breath.
It's easy for him to articulate that he has come to college with a purpose.
“To learn as much as I can and change the world is a big goal of mine,” he says with a calm confidence. “I know it’s a really big goal, but when it comes to trying to change the very environment that you thrive in, you can’t have a specific goal. You have to take every lesson and apply it and see how it changes you and how it can change other people.”
This is off-stage Kennerly.
He spends the vast majority of weekends during the academic year traveling across the country and competing at speech tournaments with his Doane Forensics teammates, using his gift—his voice—to perform speeches about race and the activity itself.
But late on a Monday afternoon, with classes for his two majors done for the day, he’s talking about life. He’s leaned back in his chair, hat on backwards, earrings in, a pair of flashy red Vans laced up on his feet and ear buds in hand. At the center of it all, he’s sporting a gray T-shirt with a quote from poet Charles Bukowski: “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
He’s still searching for his "it." But even though Kennerly isn’t ready to say exactly how he’s going to change the world, he’s finding his way.
“I don’t really have a set goal that I’m reaching for right now. I’m still early in life. Just kind of riding the wave, going with the flow.”
Portsmouth, Virginia, was first colonized in the 17th Century, about 50 miles south of Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in Colonial America.
With an Atlantic deepwater port, Portsmouth became known—and desired—for its strategic importance.
The American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War built Portsmouth into a naval stronghold with opposite sides fighting for its control.
Kennerly’s hometown is a different kind of battleground today.
“Portsmouth, Virginia—no place like it. It teaches you a lot. It raises you. You gotta learn to grow up quick or else you could end up in a ditch,” he says. “It doesn’t offer anything to you after you graduate high school, really doesn’t have much to offer you anyway. A low-income job, maybe.”
Poverty, gentrification and a rising crime rate plague the city, he says, and there aren’t any reasons to go home beyond his annual holiday break to visit family.
“The area is much rougher than Crete, Nebraska. As I understand it, he feels very blessed that his family was educated and that they very much so promoted education,” says Communication Instructor Nathaniel Wilson, Kennerly’s coach in Doane Forensics. “His family was very stable and supportive, and the impression I get from him, is that he feels he was in the minority in Portsmouth amongst his friends. Most of his friends were living a very different life, a much less structured life and a much more trying life.”
It’s why he chose to leave, to go out-of-state for college.
Kennerly considered a few Historically Black Colleges and Universities and visited big state schools in the South like the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“I knew I could’ve gotten into any HBCU I wanted to. My family goes to HBCUs,” Kennerly says. “I applied to them and got in, but I really wanted to experience something different.”
He also mulled scholarship offers to wrestle. Doane College came calling for him at Churchland High, and that’s how Kennerly ended up six states away from home in rural Nebraska.
“Mainly, the reason I came here was to wrestle and it was something different, far away.”
Two years later, though, wrestling—like Portsmouth—is a thing of the past for Kennerly.
Sam Clifford ’17 knows Kennerly as Kenny.
A mutual friend on the Tiger Wrestling team introduced them and immediately they found a shared passion for important topics.
A year later, not a day goes by that they don’t see each other. They’re often in the same classes for their law, politics and society major, traveling together with Doane Forensics and they both pledged and joined Sigma Phi Theta fraternity.
Sam is from nearby Valparaiso. It’s typical small-town Nebraska: one train track, one mom-and-pop grocery store and a few bars on Main Street (not even a stoplight). It’s population of less than 1,000 is more than 90 percent white.
Valparaiso couldn’t be more of a far cry from Portsmouth if it tried, but they’ve bonded on what privileges they share.
“He’s told me some personal stories about back home, and one of the things that he opened my eyes to is how incredibly blessed we are to even be at this campus right now,” Sam says, “in a fraternity that allows us to not only connect with amazing people but help out those less fortunate than us and those less privileged than we are. He also opened my eyes up to my own privilege, which is coming from rural Nebraska (in) the least violent community.”
These are the kind of things Kenny and Sam—two close friends from two different parts of the country with two radically different ideas on home—come together on.
And those common ideals are why they love being “Siggies.” The fraternity self-identifies and promotes itself as “college outcasts,” but the current members of the group are embracing their difference for good and personal growth.
“I knew I wanted to be a Siggie from the day I decided I wanted to do Greek Life, and I feel like a lot of my brothers were the same way,” Kennerly says. “You can claim to be about your core values and you can put them up all over the place for people to see, but in all actuality, it’s about how well you embody those values into your own being and emit that on campus. That’s one of the things that spoke to me about my organization.”
Kennerly Benraty '18 joined Doane's Sigma Phi Theta fraternity in 2015.
Photo by Andrew Mattson
As the fraternity’s 2015-16 community service chairman, Sam organized projects for Sigma Phi Theta members to give back to the Crete community: A backpack program with Crete’s United Church of Christ. Volunteering for blood drives at Doane. Teaming with Omega Psi Theta sorority for its week of drunk driving awareness in memory of sorority member Sally Smith, who was killed in a 1981 traffic accident.
Just like any other day, Kenny was right there with him, lending a helping hand.
“It’s wild. I can’t think of the last time I’ve gone a day without seeing him,” Sam says. “It is really awesome to have someone that I can always rely on, that’s going to be there, and with those activities it’s such a close-knit bond without even trying. Whatever I’ve got going on, he’s going to be there, too. It’s just so easy to connect and feel inspired everyday by his presence.”
They’re also inspired to lend their voices.
For those in the know, Nebraska is a speech state.
From the high school level to the college ranks, some of the best competitive speakers in the nation compete for schools right here in the Cornhusker State.
Just this year, 10 different Nebraska high schools sent students to nationals with one student becoming an individual national champion and three others finalists. At the college level, four programs finished in the top 25 at the American Forensic Association’s National Individual Events Tournament at the University of Florida.
Doane—just as it has for the last nine years—was one of them.
Its coach has had his fair share of success. Wilson coached at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., another perennially ranked speech program, before he came to Doane. In 2015, he led Doane Forensics to its first top-10 finish in program history.
This year, though, he witnessed something he’d never seen before in competitive speech.
Kennerly, with no speech or debate experience before college, qualified four events for nationals and made it all the way to the quarterfinals in poetry interpretation.
What does Wilson call that kind of ascendance?
“Meteoric. Very, very, very rare.”
And to think that it was all because the first-year student happened to find his way into one of Wilson’s public speaking courses in his first semester on campus.
Kennerly was impossible to ignore, so the coach left the door wide open.
“Right away, I identified he would be an amazing member of speech, but at that time he was doing wrestling,” says Wilson, remembering their first encounter in the fall of 2014. “So we would talk about speech and if there was a time, there was this other option for him.”
At first blush, offering a spot on one of the nation’s best speech teams to a student with no experience might’ve seemed like a stretch. But instead of inexperience, Wilson recognized potential waiting to be tapped.
“He has a lot of charisma. The passion that he brings into the events that he’s doing radiates off of him,” Wilson says. “Right away, he’s the person in the room that you want to watch.”
A semester after they met, Kennerly realized his heart wasn’t in wrestling anymore. So he set up a meeting with Nathaniel during the spring term and did what he does best—speak from the heart.
“He started out by saying, ‘Ever since I was eight years old, I’ve been telling people that I was going to change the world, and I realized I can’t change the world by wrestling. What I need is a forum, and I think speech is that forum,’” Wilson recalls. “It was very emotionally delivered. It hit me in the heart.”
From that point forward, Kennerly was part of the team. He spent his first weekend observing his new teammates and some of the other top programs in the country—like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Omaha—at the Nebraska Intercollegiate Forensics Association state tournament.
In a few short weeks, he managed to qualify his poetry interpretation for 2015 nationals.
On the one year anniversary of joining the team, he finished as the runner-up in poetry at the 2016 NIFA tournament before his breakout performance at nationals. The poetry event that made him a national quarterfinalist focused on how African-Americans’ experience under oppression in the U.S. could inform counterterrorism tactics.
Kennerly Benraty '18 (front row, left), Sam Clifford '17 (front row, right) and head coach Nathaniel Wilson (far right) pose with team members and coaches for the 2015-16 Doane Forensics team in Gainesville, Florida.
Wilson points to Kennerly’s work ethic for his rise in speech. Sam credits his friend’s enthusiasm.
“You can drill for hours the sort of fundamentals and little tricks that make your speech more clean than competitors’, but you can’t teach the heart and the passion that he brings out there every time that he performs, whether it’s practice or a final round,” Sam says. “It makes me jealous in a way because I’ve been doing this for seven years now, since my freshman year of high school, and he caught up so quick because he had that passion, the drive and he was hungry for success in getting his message out there.”
There’s no secret to Kennerly’s success: he just follows the beat of his own drum.
With the time outside of his academic schedule, his compass pointed him toward preparing himself to be the change he wants to see in the world. Wrestling wasn’t part of that equation.
“I found a new calling in forensics while on the wrestling team,” he says. “It was just a niche that I felt comfortable in. That’s where I felt like I needed to be. You can’t ignore it when you know you’re supposed to be doing something. You just go with the flow.”
Kennerly heeds his intuition. He joined Doane Forensics because he felt compelled to speak up. He joined IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access), a campus organization promoting racial awareness, for the same reason.
In the classroom, his passion for social justice made it natural for him to declare majors in political science as well as law, politics and society (and a minor in sociology).
His coach wants to see him continue on the path he’s making for himself.
“It’s really exciting, especially to see all that potential in him as a sophomore,” Wilson says. I think he’s probably making the right decision to ride the wave, see what happens over the next couple years and let that help him decide where to start.”
It could be in academia, activism or politics. Whatever it is, Kennerly sees change in the offing—but he’ll ride the wave to get there.
“I definitely see myself in the future starting something, being an activist for many things, being a community leader,” Kennerly says. “(It’s) the big question that you come to college to figure out: What do you want to do? I feel like it’s not necessarily you finding what you want to do, but what you want to do finding you.”
Kennerly Benraty '18 (Portsmouth, Virginia) wants to change the world.
Photo by Andrew Mattson