By Sarah Sabatke 

Holt Skinner smiles at the camera.
Holt Skinner. Photo by Monique Woo

As the final notes of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” rang out in Jesse Auditorium, audience members rose to their feet. They were cheering MU sophomore Holt Skinner who, after a long audition process, had smashed his final performance in the Mizzou Idol competition.

Skinner, who says he is “not the most fashion-conscious person in the world,” remembers what one of the judges said after his performance.

“He said, ‘You come out here in sweatpants and a hoodie and then you blow us all away with your voice.’ ”

His effort earned him applause and the “fan favorite” award, voted on by the audience.

Just a year earlier, Skinner had been a quiet freshman, uncomfortable speaking in front of strangers. But he made a decision to stretch himself, launching a journey that has taken the Mizzou senior not just to the Jesse Auditorium stage but also a residence hall job and a leadership role in a computer science competition that has attracted the attention of the biggest names in American technology, including Microsoft and Cerner.

Algorithm for success

A love of math and computers drew Skinner to major in computer science. He decided to build on his performance skills — this time in the classroom — and test his hand at teaching computer science by working as a peer adviser job in the MU Residential Life Freshman Interest Group (FIG) program.

“I originally wanted to do the job so I could get out of my comfort zone a little because I’ve always been very shy,” Skinner says. “It allowed me to jump all-in and not have a choice — I have to talk in front of people at least once a week.”

Skinner has been a peer adviser in Gillett Hall for three years, teaching FIGs on computer science and engineering. One of the lessons he taught this past fall focused on cyber security.

Holt Skinner closes his eyes and sings into a microphone.
Mizzou Idol contestant Holt Skinner performs his first song during the semifinalist round. Skinner would go on to win fan favorite during the final round.

“You hear about all these data breaches and hacks — I was able to explain, ‘OK, here’s actually how these things work on a semi-technical level,’ ” he says.

He says teaching a FIG has helped him to better understand computer science and better connect with students.

“In terms of my public speaking, I’ve gotten much better at collecting my thoughts and presenting them in a concise manner,” says Skinner.

Taking the stage

The confidence and public speaking skills he gained from Residential Life and Mizzou Idol paid off senior year when, in October 2017, he was selected to lead TigerHacks, a regional programming competition hosted by the MU Computing Association.

College students from across the Midwest converged on Mizzou to spend a weekend creating something — an app, a website, a robot, etc. — that solved a problem. Large technology companies, such as Microsoft and Cerner, sponsored the event, and some even sent representatives to recruit students.

Holt Skinner, right, and Will Morrison smile at the camera.
Skinner poses at the 2017–18 TigerHacks competition with Will Morrison, vice president of the Mizzou Computer Association. Skinner directed TigerHacks this past year, which set a new high for participation. Photo courtesy of College of Engineering.

Skinner drew on every organizational, leadership and public speaking skill he had to pull off the event. “I most likely wouldn’t have put myself out there to run an event like TigerHacks if I didn’t have [that FIG] experience,” he says.

Skinner says he is proud of the work produced by the approximately 300 students who attended the competition — the biggest turnout ever in the five years the program has been held.

“There was so much innovation that came out of this, and a lot of the students who attended had a really amazing time with it,” he says. “They’re super excited to come back for next year’s event.”

The West Plains, Missouri, native has come a long way from the sophomore who was nervous about speaking in front of small groups of students. And, although the Mizzou Idol competition was not held this spring, Skinner continues to make his voice heard.

“I still get an adrenaline rush every time I perform or present, but it’s more because of excitement instead of anxiety,” he says.

Holt Skinner sings on stage.
Skinner performs in a School of Music production. Courtesy School of Music