Cameron Hekkert, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Honors College, will serve as the university’s mascot for 2020-2021 academic year.
Cameron Hekkert grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a suburb just south of Denver and a far cry from what anyone would call "rural." She and her family knew very little about the equestrian world.
"We had a little tract, suburban house, not a ranch," said her mother, Stacey Duke. "But in the summers, we would go up into the mountains."
"We would go up all the time, and that's all she wanted to do," Duke said. "Most people hike; she just wanted to ride."
Hekkert spent the next several years learning as much as she could about horses. Her dedication paid off. This summer, she was named Texas Tech's 59th Masked Rider.
"Cameron is very personable, smart and enthusiastic," said Stephanie Rhode, director of the Spirit Program. "She's kind and easy to work with, and I know that as we hand the reins to her, she recognizes what it means to serve and represent our university. She's been around the program so much, through the High Riders and as an assistant to previous Masked Riders, and has put herself in a really good position to understand the university, the Spirit Program and how our traditions work."
Feeding a passion
Growing up, Hekkert always found a way to ride horses.
"We went to ranches and let her ride, found organized rides for her to enjoy, and she rode on just about every vacation we took," said her father, Erik Hekkert. "It was even easier when she became friends with a softball teammate who had horses."
Riding in the mountains soon turned into riding lessons in Denver and helping with cattle drives in the summer. When Hekkert was 14, she began competing in barrel races.
"I was determined to learn and continue riding," Hekkert said. "When I was 16, I purchased my first horse, a 4-year-old named Pickle."
During her junior year, she founded her high school's rodeo team. As the only member, she competed in barrel racing and breakaway roping in the Colorado rodeo circuit.
"We kid her and say she's read the horse encyclopedia forward and backward," Duke said. "Everything she does is self-taught. She is proof that just because you didn't grow up on a ranch doesn't mean you can't still love rodeo, learn to ride and love horses and that whole lifestyle. She is tenacious and has not given up on her dreams."
Becoming a Red Raider
Eventually, it was time to for Hekkert to choose a university. Duke said Hekkert decided to attend Texas Tech after a campus visit with her family.
"When we came down to the school, she loved the professors," Duke said. "They made her feel special and welcome. The university has a phenomenal culture, school spirit and a sense of being together in a community, with great professors and programs. She finally found the place where she felt like she belonged."
Hekkert arrived at Texas Tech in fall 2017 as an animal science major, bringing along her mare to live with her in Lubbock. She joined the High Riders, the women's spirit organization, and became interested in the world of collegiate sports. After completing an introduction to sport management course her second year, she changed her major.
"I just love the environment of college sports and especially the environment here at Texas Tech," Hekkert said. "I rushed High Riders my first semester, met my best friend and current roommate there and served as the public relations chair for the organization this past academic year. I was in charge of their social media and spoke at elementary school pep rallies on their behalf. I also was a member of the Texas Tech Athletic Ambassadors, which allowed me to work in fan engagement and promotions at home sporting events."
In addition to her extracurricular activities during the year, Hekkert continued to gain more equestrian knowledge and skills. During the summer of 2018, she worked at a Montana ranch, where she learned about team roping, cutting and reining.
She also is a dedicated scholar, serving for several years as a research assistant for companion animal science assistant professor Katy Schroeder. Many of their projects include the Equine-Assisted Counseling and Wellness Lab, which Schroeder directs, at the Texas Tech Therapeutic Riding Center.
"Cameron started volunteering with my research lab in spring 2018, and she's been an indispensable member of our team ever since," Schroeder said. "She has worn many hats, since our research includes both humans and horses. Some of our projects involved assessing the effects of equine-assisted programs for military veteran mental well-being and investigating an equine-assisted family therapy intervention for childhood obesity."
Hekkert was responsible for supervising research participants, including teaching youth and adults how to complete the equine activities in each research session and ensuring they had safe interactions with the therapy horses. She assisted with data collection and analyses for research studies in which the team assessed equine temperament, sociability and attachment to people. She also spent countless hours evaluating and coding horse behavior, which allowed researchers to translate the data into meaningful results.
"She possesses such amazing talents when it comes to working with horses and people, not to mention an incredible work ethic and tons of school spirit," Schroeder said. "It has been such a privilege to be one of Cameron's faculty mentors, and I've enjoyed seeing her grow into an outstanding student leader. I am beyond thrilled that she will be taking the reins as the 59th Masked Rider. She and Fearless Champion will be an outstanding team."
Becoming the Masked Rider
During her second year at Texas Tech, Hekkert decided to take a shot at becoming one of the most recognizable riders in the world: the Masked Rider. When she first mentioned she would be trying out for the position, it came as a bit of a surprise to her parents.
"I was nervous for her, but we've always told our kids, 'You've got to take chances to get results,'" Erik Hekkert said. "I know she's capable of handling the horse, truck and trailer. She's got great school spirit, obviously loves horses and the combination was absolutely exciting for her. But I was surprised she'd want to be in the public eye so much. She's always been a quiet, studious person, and, now, she has blossomed into this confident woman who's ready to take chances and be out there."
Duke said she also noticed changes in her daughter since her arrival at Texas Tech.
"It's been great to see her come out of her shell and see how she's grown," Duke said. "She's made some really great friendships. She does the equine therapy, she's worked on research and she's loved it. It's all these things I wouldn't have imagined Cam would want to do. But, for whatever reason, she really has found her home at Texas Tech and has embraced the West Texas culture. And it really has embraced her back."
During spring 2019, Hekkert joined the Masked Rider application and selection process. She said Lyndi Starr, then the 57th Masked Rider, was kind enough to take her to a few appearances during the application process.
"When I first came to Texas Tech, I had no intention of trying out," Hekkert said. "But after I saw that first run on the field, I was enchanted. I could not go my entire four years of college without giving it a shot or at least getting involved with the program. I didn't know how far I would get, but I figured it would be good practice in case I wanted to try out again. I ended up making it to the final interview."
Her first attempt last spring may not have ended the way she hoped – the position went to Emily Brodbeck, a graduate student from Lubbock majoring in wildlife, aquatic and wildlands science and management in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. But Hekkert still got another opportunity – after being selected, Brodbeck asked Hekkert to become one of her assistants for the 2019-2020 academic year.
After a year in that position, it was time to try out again this spring, and again, Hekkert made it to the final round of interviews.
"I supported her all the way," Erik Hekkert said. "It was fun talking to her about the challenges and deadlines. This year, she kept us in the loop of all the parts, especially since COVID-19 caused some changes and weird situations. She knew she was in the top three, and it came down to the final interviews. She was crazy nervous when the interviews finally came around."
After the interviews concluded, there was only one thing left to do: wait for the news.
Getting the call
On selection day, the finalists were told they would be notified of the results at 1 p.m.
"I knew it would be a phone call if I got it, so I tried not to look at my phone the whole day," Hekkert said. "As soon as the clock turned to 1 p.m., my phone rang. I was so shocked. I tried to keep my composure, but I think I just started crying right away. I remember talking to Stephanie for about 10 minutes, but I blacked out for most of the conversation. It was definitely an indescribable feeling, knowing this dream I have worked for so hard is actually going to happen."
Hekkert immediately called her parents to give them the news.
"She was crying from excitement and was completely thrilled to tell me 'I got it,'" her father said. "I couldn't have been prouder or happier for her. She's always worked very hard to get what she wants, and it hasn't always panned out. This time, all the effort and worry paid off, and I can't wait to give her a hug for congratulations. I'm so proud of her for putting forth the effort and for getting it done. She'll be a part of school history, and I know she'll represent Texas Tech with all of her energy and attention."
Duke said their entire family is excited for Hekkert.
"I've learned that whatever she puts her mind to, she'll do," Duke said. "Hopefully, she's able to inspire others by saying, 'Yeah, this was my dream and I made it, and if you work hard, whatever your dream is, whatever your passion is, you can do it, too.' She has put in the time, learned and absorbed, and now she's going to continue to learn about how and what it means to be that great community partner."
Her father said he's hopeful about what Hekkert will gain from the experience.
"She'll have to manage her time with studies, friends and the job at hand; she will need assistants to help her out, and she will have to guide them through the experience," Erik Hekkert said. "I hope she gains valuable life lessons in time management and flexibility with changes in goals, tasks and the people involved in those changes. I hope she gains lifelong friendships and connections. I hope she learns some people management skills.
"I am looking forward to being at the first football game, seeing her get ready and the amazing moment of her riding across that field as the star of the moment, in her cape, hat and mask, riding her horse. It will be unbelievable."
Hekkert said her goal as Masked Rider is simple: bringing joy to every person she meets.
"Especially with the pandemic, that is more important than ever," she said. "People have different opinions about sports, academics or anything else in between, but if you are a Red Raider, the Masked Rider is always going to be that special symbol you know and take pride in. It takes alumni back to their time on campus and gives fans chills right before a football game. When they see the Masked Rider in other places, it brings back all of those feelings. I am honored to be a part of it, and if I inspire a few future students to be Red Raiders, that is a plus. I hope every person can see how great of a school Texas Tech truly is."
Hekkert's year of service may have just started, but she's already gotten to work.
"She hasn't stopped smiling since she was offered the position," Erik Hekkert said. "She's been out for photographs, she's been mucking the stall. She's completely capable, super excited and has school spirit to share."
He said there's one more thing his daughter has in abundance that will make her an outstanding mascot.
"Love," he said. "Cameron loves Texas Tech, she loves Lubbock and, no doubt, she loves the horse. She is definitely nervous about missing out on some of the big events due to COVID-19. But she'll wear a mask, practice social distancing and maintain her health all for the chance to ride across the football field after a touchdown. She understands when changes need to be made, and she's flexible and dependable. She is going to be an amazing Masked Rider regardless of the season we face. She is 100% dedicated to making this position a successful experience for her and the school."
With the ongoing pandemic, Hekkert is mindful of measures being taken to ensure health and safety at appearances and preparing for any unexpected changes that may occur.
"This year is definitely going to be a challenge in that it won't look like a typical Masked Rider year, but I am excited nonetheless," she said. "It just means I will get to treasure every appearance that much more, and I still get to bond with Fearless Champion. I am excited to work with him, because he truly is such a special horse."
She also is excited to interact with others who share her love of Texas Tech.
"Some people are so nervous or shy to come up and talk to the Masked Rider or see Fearless Champion, and I want to encourage them to do that," Hekkert said. "I want to strengthen the connection between the Masked Rider and current students on campus. After all, I am a passionate Red Raider, just like them. The previous Masked Riders are all such amazing people, and it is exciting to be able to represent Texas Tech and join the ranks. It truly is such a privilege to be able to serve and give back to my university."
Duke said no matter what the year holds for Hekkert, her family will be by her side.
"I already bought season football tickets," Duke said. "We're going to every home game, if we can. Her brother is at Texas Christian University (TCU), so we'll try to go the TCU/Texas Tech game, too. Anything and everything we can do to support her in this role, we absolutely will.
"It's going to be hard and different. Everybody wants to ride across the field, and hopefully she'll get the chance to do that. But the role is more than just football. The bigger part of it is about being a representative, building the brand and awareness of Texas Tech out in the community and being good community partners. She has so much pride, and she wants to share that with others. And she'll be awesome."
Though being chosen as the 59th Masked Rider is a dream come true, Hekkert also has big plans after she completes her service. That includes a few more years as a Red Raider, as she's already received early acceptance into the School of Law for fall 2021.
"I love Lubbock so much, I decided four years wasn't enough and signed up for an extra three," Hekkert said. "I want to go into sports law or criminal law. I would love to eventually work in a collegiate athletics department or possibly be a criminal prosecutor."
She said she's thankful for all the ways being a Red Raider has changed her life, for the committee who selected her to serve as the Masked Rider and for her parents and family, who have supported her equestrian dreams since she was that 4-year-old girl, taking her first ride in the Colorado mountains.
"This university has given me so many opportunities, and I want people to know that when they come to Texas Tech, they will have those same opportunities," Hekkert said. "I really want to give back to the school that has given me so much, and the fact that I get to do that with a pretty cool horse is just a bonus. It means a lot to know that the committee trusts me to represent Texas Tech in such a large and public way, especially this year, when everything is uncertain.
"I love this school with my whole heart, and I am extremely excited and very blessed to share that with people. It is truly such an honor to represent Texas Tech in this capacity, and I can't wait to see what this year holds!"