It is a cliché story—the one where the hopeful, career-hunting traveler stumbles into New York City and discovers it is the promised land of opportunity—but for Kenny Hildebrand (BA 2015), the story is all too real. He laughed when summarizing his journey from St. Catharines to New York City; it started with an old friend jokingly suggesting he move there and ended shortly after with an offer to work at one of the largest law firms in Manhattan. “Moving here was an inside joke that went a little too far,” he mused.

Kenny tried on many shoes throughout his career journey before landing in New York. He worked at a homeless shelter for four years after graduating high school, pursued education as a student (at three post-secondary schools), worked full-time night shifts at Starbucks, inspired youth as a camp program director, trained as a chef, worked as a program facilitator for a corporate teambuilding company, and began his legal career representing clients in family and criminal court in the Niagara Region. Today, Kenny is a Restructuring Associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. In restructuring, Kenny advises companies, creditors, and others on corporate bankruptcy and financial reorganization issues, and has been involved in several successful restructurings. This involves “taking a situation that isn’t ideal and working with the stakeholders to figure out a way that parties can move forward.” Kenny added, “I find work that engages conflicts and addresses them head-on and looks for hope and redemption to be very rewarding. I think that’s probably the thread that ties together my otherwise nonsensical career path thus far.”

In 2015, Kenny graduated from the Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) program at the University of Waterloo. He spent most of his university years living at Conrad Grebel University College and was an active member of the student community. Kenny served for a year as Student Council President participated on the Grebel Orientation Committee, and hosted and performed in numerous talent shows. After graduating, Kenny enrolled in a culinary program at Niagara College for a year before starting his law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Kenny often finds himself helping others during difficult seasons of their lives. “If you’re retaining a criminal, family, or bankruptcy lawyer, you are likely not in the position you wished you were in,” he explained. “But starting off very young working in a homeless shelter attuned my psyche to wanting to be in environments where I can work towards making things better, not worse.” Kenny views the difficult circumstances he confronts at work as a privilege. “It is inspiring to see people who are in unfortunate situations rise to the challenge. I feel honoured to get a front row view of their actions. I have seen people who are convicted of criminal offenses take ownership of how their actions have hurt others, and work to make things better again. I have seen people going through heartbreaking family circumstances put their own interests aside and do what’s best for their children, and that’s a wonderful thing.” Kenny is inspired by the acts of bravery and selflessness demonstrated by people in challenging situations. “You don’t really get to see these encouraging actions in moments of celebration—you only really see those moments of courage, those moments of exceptional self-sacrificial behavior, when life is difficult,” he added.

The skills Kenny developed in the PACS program at Grebel have proved vital in his career. He shared an example of how an education in PACS has helped him as an advocate for others: “One of my first court appearances in America was in housing court. I had a client who was going through some challenging life circumstances, and they found it difficult to trust legal professionals. But my time at Grebel helped me appreciate the complexities of their situation from a more holistic standpoint and helped me ask questions through a trauma-informed lens to really understand where this client was coming from, and help them feel supported. Eventually, we were able to move to a place of genuine trust.”

It is difficult for Kenny to summarize the influence Grebel has had on his life. “I can talk about the impact the education itself had, but I can also see the ways the friendships and mentorship I found at Grebel have shaped me into a better person,” he noted. Reflecting on when he started in the PACS program, Kenny sees that he began his schooling with tunnel vision regarding his career options. The classes Kenny enrolled in broadened his perspective, and the mentorship from staff and faculty members guided his aspirations. “Professor Lowell Ewert, who is a former lawyer, gave me some great advice on having reasonable expectations on what an education in law could do, and what the limitations were. I think sometimes when people go into law school, they go into it thinking that they are going to change the world—and many will—but you can change the world in different ways whether you have a law degree or not,” reflected Kenny. Lowell showed Kenny that a law degree is not a prerequisite for changing the world, but it provides a unique way to help others.

Grebel remains the same formative place for students today. The students seated in classes, laughing around the dining room tables, and chatting in residence rooms are world-changers—people like Kenny who have impactful goals and are learning where to set their sights, even if that means setting the scope wide open. Because, as Kenny realized, changing the world is not about filling a specific role or completing a certain level of education. Changing the world happens in every moment—it is a constant search to reveal hope and redemption in all circumstances.

Kenny's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more stories in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Tim Saar