Dr. Kendra Koivu remembered as insightful researcher and witty friend

Dr. Kendra Koivu was a creative and witty thinker and will be remembered at the University of New Mexico for her numerous professional accomplishments as an associate professor in political science.


Koivu passed away from breast cancer on Sept. 27, 2019 after a five-year battle, diagnosed only two years after beginning work at UNM in the fall of 2012. However, she did not let sickness define her and still conducted research, taught and pursued other projects during this time.


“Political science is a discipline where women have been relatively successful, still there are huge gender gaps,” said Political Science Assistant Professor and Koivu’s friend Dr. Jami Nuñez. “Kendra’s research was not about gender, but the way that she interacted in this field, I feel like she challenged those inequalities.”


Nuñez remembers hearing a story from Koivu about when she was attending a conference and had a “mic-drop moment.” Koivu was participating in a discussion of a new book from a well-respected political scientist. 


“She (Koivu) underscored some major logical gaps and provided really provocative insights that this author had totally missed,” Nuñez said. 


Koivu was also a member of the Advance at UNM team where she served as additional faculty leadership and served on the Communications Advisory Board. She was also a recipient of the 2017 Women in STEM travel award. Koivu used the funding for a two-week intensive workshop in Budapest on qualitative comparative analysis. 


As Koivu was breaking down barriers and conducting research in political science, she was also acting as a friend and support system to her colleagues. 


“It is a huge loss to the profession, given her awesome professional contributions and the loss to UNM of such a great teacher,” Nuñez said. “But definitely for me, I feel like the major loss is her friendship.” 


Nuñez recalls the times they shared laughed over Koivu’s sharp sense of humor. The pair often joked about how Nuñez was often on a “five-minute delay” when processing Koivu’s wit, according to Nuñez. 


“She’s had particularly sharp sense of humor — so sharp that often she would be walking back down the hall to her office and it’d take me a second to even get the joke,” Nuñez said. 


Nuñez, Koivu, and Dr. Jessica Feezell — all faculty in the UNM Political Science Department — used their similar situations to bond and lift each other up in the field. 


“That kind of community helps create spaces for junior scholars to not question themselves, but to question the profession,” Nuñez said. “Which is where the question should be on — inequalities.”


Feezell and Koivu began working at UNM at the same time and bonded over experiencing a brand new city and department. 


“We liked each other and we were in similar stages of life and our careers and we had a lot in common and it was just easy,” Feezell said. “When Jami (Nuñez) showed up, it was very much the same. It was just very easy.”


Feezell and Nuñez organized a GoFundMe account for Koivu to support her medical bills through her end-of-life care. The account also functioned as a platform for colleagues to share memories.


The messages posted on the GoFundMe mimic the sentiments that Koivu’s colleagues and friends have shared in the past month following her death. They remember Koivu as a funny, passionate and inspired friend, educator and researcher. She is also remembered as always having the right pop culture reference — even if that reference sometimes went over people’s heads. 


Fezell said the fund was something that she could give to her friend in a situation where she felt helpless. 


“For me it was just a deep need to do something when I couldn’t do anything.” Feezell said. “And everybody felt that.”


Nuñez mirrored Feezell’s thoughts, adding that the GoFundMe was an open place where people could express support for Koivu’s journey. 


At the time of publication, their GoFundMe has raised over $20,000, far exceeding the original $4,000 goal. There are plans in the works to have the leftover money be transferred into a scholarship in Koivu’s memory. 


Feezell said transferring the money into a scholarship fund eventually is a “no-brainer,” expressing all the ways that it could benefit education and research at the University while also carrying on Koivu’s legacy. 


“Kendra died when she was 40 and her life was just cut so very cut short. The scholarship really felt like something that would live out to a more proper age for her,” Feezell said.  “It’s something that could really go on when she couldn’t.” 


Along with the donating, Feezell said another way to carry on Koivu’s legacy is to stand up for strong personal beliefs.


“One of the things I feel I learned from her is to have a really clear sense of what you think is right and to own it.” Feezell said. “Even if it means saying uncomfortable, unpopular things. That it’s our privilege and right to stand up and say things to make the world a better place for our vision — for her vision.”


Donations to the GoFundMe in support of the scholarship can be made here.