Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking when she stares at you with those big eyes? Or how that squirrel in your yard will remember burying that acorn in your potted petunias? Ever thought twice before adding those extra slices of bacon to your sandwich? Ever wondered why it always seems like the octopus at the zoo is sizing you up, too?
Jesi Gibbs hopes you do.
“My overarching goal is to make people think about animals not just because they love them, or they’re pets or they’re cute or they’re food, but to respect them as other cohabiters of the planet,” she said. “There are plenty of other animals that have high levels of intelligence, and we as human animals do not necessarily treat them that way.”
An Omaha native and 2009 graduate of Burke High School, Jesi is on a mission to change our relationship with the animal world. She’s at the University of Nebraska at Omaha pursuing a degree in biology with a minor in psychology. She hopes to spend her life researching animal cognition. She’s one of seven promising students who received assistance from hundreds of generous alumni and supporters of the UNO Fund. Thanks to a scholarship from the UNO Fund, she’s driven to pursue her dream.
But her story didn’t start with such clarity.
Upon graduating from high school, Jesi attended Metropolitan Community College and earned an associate degree in business with vague ideas of starting her own company.
“I kind of wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she said, “but I kept putting together business plans and just not starting the business. I feel like I just knew that it wasn’t going to make me happy.”
“I started getting really interested in biology through a friend of mine who was here at UNO. She was in ecological sciences, and it just made me think, I could be a scientist if I wanted to! I feel like that’s something a lot of people feel is out of reach or is only for certain people who do science or math. But I was just kind of like, well, I could be a biologist, so I’m just going for it.”
Jesi knew nothing was out of reach if she put in the effort, and after reading works about ecology, marine biology and animal cognition, she discovered a drive to research how animals think and experience the world.
There was just one problem: Attaining a bachelor’s degree can be cost-prohibitive, especially for a nontraditional student who has been out of high school for 10 years. In addition, Jesi works 35 hours per week at a local floral company to support herself. Finding the time, money and energy to pursue her degree was going to be a challenge.
That’s where the UNO Fund came in. While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and supporters come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students. Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer Jesi a renewable scholarship to cover much of her tuition through her expected graduation.
“It was absolutely amazing – I cried,” she said, describing how she reacted when she got the scholarship letter. “It means I don’t have to work every extra minute of my time, and I can actually put forth the effort that I need in school, because otherwise, just in order to pay for myself living, I would have had to take out loans just to live on. I don’t have any help from family or extra people. I just support myself and am paying for school. It took so much stress off.”
Jesi is now in her second semester at UNO, and she’s found the school to be filled with faculty, staff and students who are willing to ensure she is successful and achieves her goals. While she’s not sure exactly where her studies will take her after graduation, she’s committed more than ever to impacting the world with her work. She especially wants UNO Fund donors to know the difference they’ve made for her.
“Thank you so much for your contribution. It has literally changed my life,” she said. “You’ve made it so I can actually pursue something I feel has meaning in the world and accomplish that, while not having to pay that off for my entire life after school. I don’t know a better way that you could spend your money than on students. It’s just awesome. I’m just so grateful and humbled by that. I was not expecting it, and it changed my life.”
Particularly, she said, she appreciates that the UNO Fund scholarships have given a chance to nontraditional students, who often don’t get as many scholarship opportunities as fresh high-school graduates.
“Something like this UNO Fund scholarship is so important for people like me,” she said. “Being an ‘older’ student, you don’t really have the support systems you do when you’re young, and there’s kind of no one that’s going to give you money. Having this scholarship to help people specifically in my circumstance that don’t really have other avenues is super, super important.”
Jesi said she hopes to pay back these gifts to UNO Fund donors – by being the best student possible and ultimately by changing how we think about the natural world.
“I know what I want to do, and I feel like this money is being well spent,” she said. “I am so invested in this. I am going to see this through to the end.”
Sometimes the tiniest details matter. Kevin Ware knows this well, from both personal and professional experiences. While he always wanted to go to college, in 2013, after graduating from high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he found himself stationed at Offutt Air Force Base instead.
“I’d always been really good at school, but I never had the money to pay for college, even with FAFSA or scholarships or anything like that. That was always against me,” he said. “Joining the military was a route that I knew I could get some help paying for school, so I took that route.”
Kevin served in the U.S. Air Force from 2013 through 2018, stationed the entire time at Offutt. The experience taught him many things, but among the most helpful was the opportunity to discover what really interested him – how the tiniest of details can make a big impact on the human body.
“I always thought I wanted to be an engineer,” he said, “but as I started working out and everything like that, I became fascinated with the human body, so I decided to go the route of physical therapy. At Offutt, I did work in a medical background career field called preventative medicine – pretty much OSHA-, EPA-like work. I would go to workplaces, check for safety hazards, chemicals, radiation, the water sources on base, stuff like that. All of that and how it affected the human body, every minute detail of how it affected it, it really helped me grow the want to learn about the human body and sciences in general.”
After completing his service, Kevin stayed in the Omaha area, attending Metropolitan Community College for a year with GI Bill assistance to work on a liberal sciences degree. The experience was helpful, but he would need a four-year degree if he wanted to seriously pursue a career in physical therapy.
Kevin looked into transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he could complete his bachelor’s degree and take the next step toward physical therapy school. He said that UNO provided the smoothest transition and most attractive credit transfer options of all the schools in the area he considered. The only tough part was the tiny detail of picking a degree program.
“I originally applied to the exercise program here, but I met with staff here and we ultimately decided that wasn’t going to be the best route, because I’d have three more years of school,” he said. “They sent me over to the multidisciplinary studies office – continuing education – and we worked on a degree plan. They explained it as a build-your-own-degree plan, which I thought was pretty cool, and they fit everything that I had already done in there, plus they gave me credit for being in the military prior. All of that kind of factored in – least amount of time, credits transferring, affordability, all of that.”
The ease and helpfulness of UNO’s transfer process allowed Kevin to begin classes in the summer, when he was able to take a class in UNO’s Health & Kinesiology building that focused on how to run such a facility.
“That was super helpful,” Kevin said. “I learned a lot about how to manage a gym, and learning about different equipment, equipment costs, how to be the most cost-effective as a business with a gym. It was really cool – I had never heard of a class like that before. It was pretty in depth.”
Later that summer, Kevin got more good news – he would be one of seven promising transfer students receiving a UNO Fund scholarship starting in the fall of 2019.
While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and supporters come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students. Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer Kevin a renewable scholarship to cover much of his tuition through his expected graduation in 2020.
“I was excited,” he said. “Prior scholarships I’ve applied for I never got because the VA helps with most things. So I could tell they were really wanting to give [this scholarship] to students in need.”
Kevin entered the fall semester with enough credits to be considered a senior and look toward graduation next year. He’s currently taking classes in biology, physics and nutrition. He’s also applying for physical therapy programs so he can continue to pursue his dream of one day opening his own business.
“My eventual goal is to open a physical therapy clinic with a gym attached to it,” he said. “That way you have athletes and general population in to train, and you always have the physical therapist side of it for people that are there nursing injuries or that want help. That’s the ultimate goal – to have something like an athletics center almost.”
That dream is a little bit closer today, thanks to alumni and community members who gave Kevin a chance through the UNO Fund, and he wanted each donor to know just how grateful he is for the support. Unlike the intricacies of biology, chemistry and the human body, even the smallest gift is no tiny detail for Kevin and his family.
“I’ll be the first one in my immediate family with a four-year degree,” he said, “so that’s something good to look forward to. Thank you for making an opportunity like that available to the students. It’s not every day someone receives a scholarship, so thank you. It’s greatly appreciated.”
You can see the passion in Reggie’s eyes – he’s on a mission to change someone’s life.
Reggie studies social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, driven by a calling to help others avoid the difficulties he experienced and find the same successes he has found. He’s also a 2019 UNO Fund scholarship recipient – one of seven promising students who received assistance thanks to hundreds of generous alumni and supporters to the UNO Fund.
Reggie grew up in Arkansas in a single-parent home with his three siblings. Looking back, he said he lacked role models in his childhood, which provided an opening for “negative peers” and “bad influences.”
“I was academically illiterate,” he said. “I was not determined to get through school. I was starting to be influenced by surroundings. They were not positive influences.”
Reggie came to Omaha in 2007 to live with his father. He attended Central High School and graduated in 2010, with plans to attend Metropolitan Community College to earn an associate degree in general education. However, life put more roadblocks in his way.
“I was at risk of being homeless in 2010 after graduating from high school,” he said. “My father was incarcerated for a short period of time, and I was living at his residence, and eventually I had to leave because I just couldn’t afford it.”
Reggie bounced around from place to place, and the stresses of not knowing if he’d have a place to sleep affected his ability to concentrate on his studies. He turned to people and organizations who could help him find stability, including Omaha’s Youth Emergency Services, which helped him gain valuable life skills, and the Goodwill Youth Partnership, which helped him pay for classes at MCC. These organizations, as well as involvement with his church, allowed him to reset and begin returning the favor. He became the first male graduate from the YES program in more than 40 years, and, later, he was invited to serve on the organization’s board of directors. In addition, he became a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and he even served as a mentor to an acquaintance with a disability who had faced life circumstances similar to his own.
“I certainly want to give back to others who are experiencing what I experienced,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m going into social work. I give God glory for it, and I’m thankful for the people who have supported me.”
Reggie eventually graduated from MCC in 2015, but by this point he had realized he was destined to serve. Through his life experiences, his faith and his volunteer work, he now knew he wanted to devote his life to giving back. His fiancée, a recent UNO graduate, suggested he look into the school’s social work program.
“She said, ‘Since you’re trying to help other people get into school, why don’t you go back to school?’” Reggie said. “I ended up seeking advice on what would be a good fit for me based on my skills and what I love to do, and someone mentioned social work. I said I’m taking that. Since I’ve been taking classes, it’s been a perfect fit for me. I’ve found my niche. I’ve found my God-given calling to serve others.”
Reggie admits he didn’t know how he was going to pay for classes, but he was determined to attend UNO, which has one of the top social work programs in the nation. That’s where the UNO Fund came in.
While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and supporters come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students. Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer Reggie a renewable scholarship to cover much of his tuition through his expected graduation in 2021.
“What this scholarship is doing is reducing the amount of time I put in at my job,” he said. “I’m able to focus on studying what I need to in order to be able to serve people in the community. I won’t have to work extra hours to try to accumulate enough money to pay my tuition. When people are funding me, this is where I’m able to focus on what I need to be able to grow as an individual and be able to serve people.”
He’s taking three courses this semester, in addition to working full time in security. He also makes time to continue his volunteer work, including involvement with his church and local organizations serving the homeless, elderly, immigrants and refugees.
“Though I don’t want to overload myself with things,” he said. “I want to be able to focus on grades, keeping my GPA up, but focusing on the material and retaining it, so when I get out of school I can be able to apply what I’ve learned and be able to serve others effectively.”
Reggie reiterated that none of this would be happening without the help of donors to the UNO Fund.
“I am so grateful for them giving me the opportunity to receive this scholarship,” he said. “They certainly saw the potential in me and saw I’m someone worth funding, because I’m determined to make a difference in people’s lives for the better. And I’m definitely determined. And they certainly are contributing to the work I plan on doing.”
David Festner knows a thing or two about balance, determination and life on the edge. For the past 24 years, he’s sharpened his skills – and his blades – as a competitive figure skater.
Now in his first semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, David has always had competitive skating in his life, helping him master his passion and grit in a sport that is simultaneously technical and artistic. His family runs the Blade & Edge Figure Skating Club in Omaha, and he’s competed and coached with the organization, seeking perfection both on and off the ice for his skaters and himself.
Perhaps this helped spark his interests in athletics and creativity, as he now hopes to become a sports broadcast journalist through the UNO College of Communications, Fine Arts and Media. The similarities of his new program and figure skating are hard to ignore – both require precision and technical mastery, but both also call for creativity, drive and passion.
David gets to pursue mastery of this new area as a 2019 UNO Fund scholarship recipient – one of seven promising students who received assistance thanks to the gifts of hundreds of generous alumni and supporters to the UNO Fund.
After graduating from Millard West High School in 2010, David attended Metropolitan Community College to pursue a degree in computer programming, but it wasn’t exactly the best fit for him.
“I originally was going to be an IT specialist,” he said. “I wanted to work with computers, figure out what was wrong with them and everything, but then I sort of realized I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all the time. So I switched to study audio/video communications. I had never really messed with a camera before, and I thought it would be interesting to learn. I ended up falling in love with it because I was having so much fun.”
David started tinkering with photography on the side and learning various editing software programs. He realized he could combine this interest with his love of sports, but he also knew he would need the expertise a bachelor’s degree would bring if he wanted a chance in the field.
Fortunately for him, UNO offers one of the best programs in the region for this field, and existing partnerships with MCC make the process of transferring credits to achieve a four-year degree a smooth transition. David said staff at UNO helped significantly and made the decision to come to UNO simple.
“I looked at other colleges, but I was afraid my credits wouldn’t transfer,” he said, adding that UNO’s ability to assist community college transfer students gives it an edge over other schools.
In addition, David said another factor made his decision to pursue his four-year degree easy – a scholarship offer from the UNO Fund.
“I was excited,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to come here, and when I found out that I got offered the scholarship over the summer, it made that decision a lot easier.”
While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and supporters come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students. Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer David a renewable scholarship to cover much of his tuition through his expected graduation in 2021.
“I just want to say thank you very much,” David said, speaking to UNO Fund donors. “You’re helping the students that need it the most avoid loans and debts and those things that make school harder for us.”
Now, David is focused on earning his journalism and media communications degree. His first semester includes courses on media writing, introduction to journalism and communications, criminal justice and creative writing for the arts. He hopes completing his degree will help him land a job in local journalism, with an eye toward national broadcast networks as his ultimate dream. Thanks to the UNO Fund, David’s found a whole new rink in which to sharpen his skills, find his balance and showcase his determination to succeed.
“I’m still getting myself situated here at UNO, but it’s definitely a huge change,” he said. “Everything I’m learning is completely new to me. It’s a little challenging, learning AP style and all that, but it’s teaching me how to be a better writer. Before I came to this program at UNO, I was thinking, this program is either going to help me or it’s going to break me. So far, it’s helping me out.”