Student-Athlete and AFROTC Cadet Nick McKenzie Readies for Future in Space Force

An Air Force ROTC cadet receives an unmanned systems award from his commander at Michigan Tech
An Air Force ROTC cadet receives an unmanned systems award from his commander at Michigan Tech
McKenzie receives the unmanned systems award from his commander, Lt. Col. Ben Zuniga, in the ROTC building at Michigan Tech.

Nick McKenzie wanted to earn an electrical engineering degree, continue his running career and join Air Force ROTC. He found it all at Michigan Tech, following a path that has led him to the U.S. Space Force.

McKenzie, now in his last semester of school, is the fourth member of Michigan Technological University’s Guardians of the North Detachment 400 to join the U.S. Space Force since the armed force’s organization under the U.S. Department of the Air Force in 2019.

For McKenzie, who hails from Dexter, Michigan, ROTC crept into his plans when he started thinking about college.

“I didn’t do any ROTC in high school and I wasn’t really exposed to it growing up either, other than a grandpa in the Navy and an uncle who was in the Marines,” he said. “It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I heard what this AFROTC thing was about. I thought maybe it was something that I could look into that could be an interesting way to go about going to college.”

McKenzie’s dad Dave is a Tech alum, and was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He attended in the 1980s, majoring in environmental engineering, and has always spoken highly of Michigan Tech. That was a big factor in McKenzie’s decision-making process.

"Michigan Tech was the only school I ever visited, the only school I ever applied to, and it just worked out really well where this was a Division II program that I was able to run at with a team that I was interested in being part of. They had the academic program that I was interested in pursuing with electrical engineering and they had the Air Force ROTC program."Nick McKenzie ’23, electrical engineering

As a high school junior, he started to look at AFROTC more seriously. “That’s when I really zoned in on Michigan Tech and said, ‘I want to go to this school,’ and in parallel looking at, ‘OK, can I run here? Is that an option?’ Then, with AFROTC and the Air Force — ‘Would this be a good place for me to pursue that option with the military?’” 

A campus visit was a huge help. “I visited the AFROTC department and it was really interesting — it had me pretty fired up to go forward with it,” he said.

McKenzie decided to apply for the competitive high school scholarship program his senior year, which is offered to students entering college and participating in AFROTC. The process included an interview, fitness test and submitting his SAT results and GPA. When he received the scholarship, McKenzie made his college decision.

“Going to the school that I was really interested in — having this Air Force program and then being able to run on the cross country and track team — that’s kind of the journey of finding the right match,” he said.

McKenzie’s role in the AFROTC has changed each semester, from leading the physical fitness training to taking on other leadership roles.

Michigan Tech AFROTC cadet Nick McKenzie does wall sits up at MacInnes Ice Arena with fellow cadets — he's smiling on the right.
Wall sits in the SDC's Johnny Mac are more fun with fellow cadets. (All photos courtesy Michigan Tech Athletics and Air Force ROTC programs)

“Nick has exhibited himself as a strong leader from day one in my new role as Air Force ROTC detachment commander and department chair,” said Lt. Col. Ben Zuniga. “He had been selected as the cadet wing vice commander, the second-highest leadership position within the organization. He led and orchestrated over the semester for 65 cadets extremely well.”

Last spring, as the operations squadron commander, McKenzie was responsible for putting on different activities for weekly leadership laboratories. He also led the campus marching event.

“I was in charge of leading a group of 12. I had a great experience mentoring younger cadets and being able to apply myself being in a more visible leadership position,” he said.

Student-athlete Cadet Finds the Right Balance

McKenzie has enjoyed some rich experiences while at Tech, from flying on a KC-135 Stratotanker to helping Michigan Tech cross country to its highest team finish at the NCAA Championship meet last December. McKenzie has been a leader on MTU’s cross country and track and field teams throughout his collegiate career. He has found that his leadership roles as a student-athlete and AFROTC cadet complement each other.

Michigan Tech's Top 10 finish at cross country nationals in 2023 was the best finish yet — and McKenzie, third from right, was there to enjoy it
Michigan Tech's cross country team's finish at nationals was the best in Tech history and McKenzie, third from right, says he'll carry the memory forever.

“It’s kind of funny how they play off each other, because obviously, the AFROTC military aspect, you’re learning how to be a leader in the military and learning how to make decisions and do formal leadership training,” he said. “Then with running and within sports, it’s less rigid the way that you might learn those leadership skills, but you can still transfer the skills both ways. I can take those skills that other cadets within AFROTC don’t necessarily get to experience being on a sports team and I can apply those back into a more military-centric environment.”

Zuniga and McKenzie’s coaches recognize how difficult it is to excel in three facets of college.

“He’s one of our top athletes and has represented us at two NCAA DII National Championships. He’s a fantastic student, with a cumulative GPA of over 3.9 and many semesters at 4.0. And he’s reached the highest levels of service in MTU’s AFROTC program,” said Kristina Owen, head coach of cross country at Michigan Tech. “To do all this simultaneously shows what an exceptional young man he is.” 

"This is a challenging school even if all you do is study full-time. Michigan Tech is our state’s flagship technological university, and we take pride in our reputation for quality. Adding varsity athletics onto that is even more challenging, and our student-athletes are experts in time management. What Nick has done, adding on the extra load of military service in the AFROTC, is at a whole different level."Kristina Owen, head coach, Michigan Tech cross country

“I’ll never forget unique experiences with Nick during his time within the AFROTC program,” said Zuniga. “Whether maintaining fitness or tackling innovative technologies, I’m sure he will be a great asset to the Space Force.”

"During morning physical training, my jaw nearly dropped as he ran around the track. Our program tests cadets’ ability to run 1.5 miles, but Nick usually kept an astonishingly fast, record-setting pace. In the classroom, his keen curiosity and engineering background really shined as he tried to tie every project or presentation to space."Lt. Col. Ben Zuniga, U.S. Air Force commander, AFROTC Detachment 400, Michigan Tech

McKenzie is excited for the future, although there are things he’ll miss about Michigan Tech.

“I’ve had such a close bond with the people on the cross country and track and field teams and have made some really close friendships. I’m going to miss that a lot. I’ve also had a lot of close bonds within AFROTC and I’ll definitely miss being around our detachment,” McKenzie said.

A Michigan Tech cross country runner at nationals in 2022 with his parents.
McKenzie with his parents at the cross country nationals in Seattle, Washington in December 2022.

Moments that will stay with McKenzie include being part of the best Michigan Tech cross country team in program history. He said it was “pretty amazing” being able to improve athletically to the point where he made a difference on a national scale.

Placing 10th in the country as a team last year was probably one of the core memories of my life, honestly,” said McKenzie. “Crossing that finish line — being able to celebrate with all my teammates, former teammates, coaches, friends, parents — that was one of the coolest memories I’ll leave this school with. There’s a lot of unknowns in my future — but I think that’s pretty exciting, and I’m looking forward to living in a place that is probably way out of my comfort zone, not a small town in the Midwest like Houghton or Dexter."

"It’ll be a new adventure for me and I’m excited to get out in the world and do some cool stuff with the Space Force and make a difference there."Nick McKenzie ’23, electrical engineering

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.