A Little Hard Work and Determination Can Make a Big Difference

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Joel Gehringer

“…And I was like, ok, life is short, and if I want to do something, I have to do it.”

Anna Wesch is on a mission to prove to her three children that, with a little hard work and determination, everyone can make a difference.

“I am a married mom of three, so obviously not a traditional student. This is my first college experience,” she said in a recent interview via videoconference. “My son is 24, and my daughters are 20 and 16. The older one has not gone to college yet, but I keep telling him, if I can do it, you can do it. This can be done. It can be difficult, but it’s a great experience, and I really appreciate it.”

As Anna works to set an example for all who dream of achieving their bachelor’s degree, hundreds of donors to the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships are setting an example, too. Their generosity allowed the University of Nebraska at Omaha to award Anna a scholarship this fall. She is one of 2020’s seven recipients of the scholarship, receiving financial assistance thanks to hundreds of generous alumni and supporters of the university.

“When I got the email that I received the scholarship, I was reading it and I was telling my husband, ‘do you think it’s real?’” she said. “I barely made it through high school, so to get something like that and be acknowledged for something like that, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is real!’ So when I realized it was, I was super excited.”

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 to 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 Anna a renewable scholarship to cover much of her tuition through her expected graduation in the fall of 2021.

Anna’s path toward that impending graduation date has been an unconventional one, but one paved with determination and grit. An Omaha native, Anna’s education journey started when got a job in the health office of an elementary school, going back to work once her youngest was able to go to preschool.

“I ended up really enjoying some of the kids that would come visit the health office that were from the special education room, so I asked to be moved,” she said. “I was a special education paraprofessional for about six or seven years. I did that while the kids were young, and then when my son was a little bit older and could help me with my younger daughters, I went and got a full-time job. I did that for a couple years, but I really missed the kids and the school community.”

Anna also felt that she could make an even greater impact on the lives of young students with special needs if she had her four-year degree.

“I kind of always thought about going to college, but I never was good in school, so I didn’t really know that it was something I could do,” she said. “Then my mother-in-law passed away, and then a year later my dad passed away. And I was like, ok, life is short, and if I want to do something, I have to do it. So I decided I would start taking a class at Metropolitan Community College, and if I made it through that class, maybe I would take another one, and then maybe I would take two classes. So I kind of started out that way, and then I was like ‘ok, now I’m here and I’m doing it, so I’m just going to keep going.’”

Anna pushed forward and made the transfer to UNO last fall. Today, she is working on her bachelor’s degree in education, studying in UNO’s early childhood inclusive program. Despite the added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anna said she has found the faculty, staff and students at UNO very helpful in navigating the program.

“The advisors at UNO have just been super awesome and super helpful,” she said. “The teachers have all been really great. I’ve had a really, really great experience.”

She is also grateful for the encouragement and support she’s received from her family.

“My husband has been my biggest supporter,” she said. “I would not have been able to even start on this path without his support.”

Anna also said she’s found inspiration from receiving the UNO Fund scholarship and knowing that donors both large and small have confidence in her and want to help her succeed.

“It’s just so unexpected,” she said. “I’m so very grateful, and it’s so very thoughtful to give something like that for people who are working toward their goal. It definitely helps to make things a little easier and makes it a little more like, ‘OK, I can do this,’ and to know that there’s people that believe I can do it too and make me successful, that’s just really cool.”

Soon Anna will begin her practicum, and she is excited to return to the classroom, as her true passion lies in the impact she can have on her young students.

“There’s a certain energy in an elementary school with kids, and it’s just so much fun, so I cannot wait to be back in a school,” she said. “I was doing some volunteer work, and then the pandemic hit, so I wasn’t able to do that anymore. I’m just ready to be back and helping and making a difference. Even as a para, you’re making a difference — it could be very small, but it’s amazing to be a part of. I’m ready to be doing that again.”

If all goes according to plan, Anna will graduate with her degree in December of 2021. With this degree, she’s be qualified to teach both regular and special education classes from birth to third grade. While she’s still considering which next step might be best for her and her students, her ultimate goal is to become an early childhood intervention specialist.

Anna also clearly recognizes the significance of her achievements and studies. As the first in her family to attend college and achieve a degree — all while raising kids and working part-time — she knows her quest to make an impact on the lives of young children will also make an impact on those who are in her same situation.

“I’d take a class, and I’d be like this is really hard, I don’t think I can do it,” she said, “but if I don’t do it, what kind of example am I setting? So I just keep pushing along.”

Anna thanked all who have given to the UNO Fund scholarship for helping to make her journey possible. She hopes their example, as well has her own journey, inspire others to continue to support this program so more students like her will have the opportunity to achieve their own educational goals and dreams.

“I’m really excited to be here,” she said. “Nobody in my family has gone to college. My parents didn’t go to college, so I’m the first in my family to actually try it out. It’s been kind of a wild ride!”

UNO Fund

You can help bring more students like Anna to UNO. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.

Meet the students YOU are helping achieve their degrees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for University of Nebraska at Omaha students who are striving for their degrees. Thanks to the help of generous supporters like you, eight students have been able to continue their studies this year with a scholarship from the UNO Fund. Through the collective power of gifts from you and alumni like you, we have been able to provide access to exceptional education to students who need it the most.

While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and community members come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students.

We’d like you to meet some of 2020-21’s UNO Fund scholarship recipients:

Karina Ruiz was just starting to feel confident when the pandemic hit. Having moved to a new country, learned a new language, started her business degree at UNO and secured her own place, the pandemic again threw life into uncertainty. She said receiving the UNO Fund scholarship “was like being able to breathe again.” “It really inspires me to want to give back, too, once I graduate and have the means, because I’ve been there,” she said. “I continue to feel more freedom financially because of what you did, because of you deciding to give. Thank you… you changed my life.”

Anna Wesch, already raising three children and working at the same time, decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree and fulfill her longtime dream of becoming an early childhood educator. The UNO Fund scholarship gave her inspiration to keep going, even when her studies got tough. “It’s just so unexpected,” she said. “I’m so very grateful. It definitely helps to make things a little easier and makes it a little more like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ To know that there’s people that believe I can do it too and make me successful, that’s just really cool.”

Beth Hoyt moved from McCook, Nebraska, to pursue communications studies at UNO. With three in her family attending college, she wanted to make sure her degree was affordable for herself and her parents. She chose UNO partly because it has one of the lowest tuition rates in the region, and the UNO Fund scholarship is helping her to graduate on time. “I’m so grateful I won’t be in debt for a long time afterward,” she said. “Th¬at was a terrifying prospect. But just to have that peace of mind is so incredible and so rare, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.”

Anna Buchannan has experienced a year full of changes — a move from Metropolitan Community College to UNO, a switch in majors, a new job and, of course, adjusting to the new virtual life of a college student in 2020-21. Fortunately for Anna, UNO alumni and donors have made all of the changes — and hitting her goal of graduating on time — just a little bit easier to manage, providing a scholarship to complete her studies. “It was a super big relief,” Anna said, “because it took out a lot of stress of me having to take a loan. I’ve gotten this far in my college career without having to take out a loan. It was amazing. I was so happy!”

Leah Stednitz had been putting her professional skills as a respiratory therapist to use by volunteering with elderly citizens when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and when that work was put on pause, she decided to become a full-time student and enrolled at UNO. She’s pursuing a multidisciplinary studies degree with emphases in health care administration, gerontology and respiratory care. “I would love to take this degree and run a long-term care facility here in the Omaha metro,” she said. “I want to take my knowledge and passion to truly honor and celebrate our senior citizens. I feel that I can bring the younger tech-savvy groove of society and apply it to our long-term care facilities to help them stay socialized and connected with the outside world.”

Sara Pedersen aspires to be both an author and a librarian. She’s pursuing an online education in library sciences from her hometown of Norfolk. Already a contest-winning writer for her mystery and horror tales, Sara’s own story got a surprising twist last fall when she received a UNO Fund scholarship. “I don’t usually win these kinds of things,” she said. “I am lucky sometimes, but not in the stuff that really matters. I have an older sister who is now an art teacher and went to college, and I have a younger brother who is currently in college in Wayne. So that is three children with debt. My parents both have good-paying jobs, but this award helps lighten the load. I am really grateful for these funds, and if you are one of the people who gave, thank you.”

Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer renewable scholarships to these students to cover much of their tuition through graduation. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.

For more UNO Fund scholarship recipient profiles, read about the 2019 recipients here.

UNO Fund

You can help bring more students like these to UNO. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.

UNO Alumni Card Goes All Digital

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Joel Gehringer

Starting this month, the UNO Alumni card goes fully digital.

Starting this month, the UNO Alumni card goes fully digital. The UNO Alumni card is issued to all individuals who give a gift of $25 or more to the UNO Fund. It provides access to a number of services on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, including Criss Library, the ability to purchase a membership to the UNO Wellness Center in H&K, discounted tickets to performances, the bookstore, and more. A full list of card advantages can be found here, though some of these privileges are currently limited due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The alumni card has been available digitally on the UNO Alumni smartphone app since 2018, supplementing the paper cards issued with donors’ gift receipts. This month, the University of Nebraska Foundation and UNO Alumni Association will discontinue automatically issuing paper cards on the receipts and will direct all UNO Fund donors to access their UNO Alumni card on the UNO Alumni app, available on both the Google and Android app stores.

The UNO alumni card is valid for one year after your gift is made. The app allows for easy tracking of this period and expiration date, as well as easy renewal of your alumni card before its expiration. The digital card cuts down the wait time for issuing cards, and it is also a convenient way to make sure you always have your card handy for use on campus and around town.

For more on the app, including links to download it, visit https://unoalumni.org/unoalumniapp

Those without access to the UNO Alumni app can email joel.gehringer@nufoundation.org to be issued a paper card. Please allow 1-2 weeks for delivery of the card after request.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) will celebrate its first annual Wear Black, Give Back 24-hour celebration and giving day on Oct. 28-29.

UNO alumni and friends across the country and around the world are encouraged to wear their favorite black Maverick gear and consider giving to scholarships, colleges and programs, student groups and activities, inclusion and wellness, athletics or other areas of choice.

The celebration starts at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 28, and goes through noon on Thursday, Oct. 29. In addition to sharing Maverick pride with #WearBlackGiveBack, contributions may be made at givingday.unomaha.edu to help any area of UNO. Gifts are accepted now through noon on Oct. 29.

UNO Chancellor Jeffery P. Gold, M.D., said Mavs from across the nation will come together to show their support of the university by wearing their proud UNO colors and by making gifts to support access to exceptional education.

“There’s never been a better time to be a Mav, and we have much to celebrate,” Gold said. “Our incredible, resilient students continue to work hard to achieve their dreams, and our world-class faculty and staff are doing all they can to make it happen safely and effectively. I want to extend my thanks to everyone who gives during Wear Black, Give Back.”

Campus kickoff activities planned Oct. 28

To celebrate the event safely, two physically distanced activities will take place on Oct. 28 at UNO.

UNO employees can drive through one of two Wear Black, Give Back stations on campus to receive a donut in thanks for their service to the university. The first station is from 9-11 a.m. at the West Parking Garage on the Dodge Campus. The second station is from 2-4 p.m. on the Scott Campus in parking lot two.

On the morning of Oct. 28, 10 small, plush Durango mascots will be hidden across the UNO campus, each one with a gift amount attached to it. The UNO students who find the Durango mascots will then get to keep it and also choose which campus cause for Wear Black, Give Back will receive the assigned gift amount.

These hidden gifts, as well as various other challenge gifts planned throughout the celebration, are made possible by individuals and corporate sponsors of the event.

For more information, updates and image downloads go to givingday.unomaha.edu.

Wear Black, Give Back is planned in partnership with UNO, the UNO Alumni Association and the University of Nebraska Foundation.

For questions about the event and to learn about sponsorship opportunities, contact Joel Gehringer at 402-502-4924 or joel.gehringer@nufoundation.org.

About the University of Nebraska at Omaha

Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.

Become a fan of UNO on Facebook and follow UNO’s Twitter updates.

In less than three weeks, three University of Nebraska at Omaha students teamed up with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to deliver a potentially life-saving mobile app.

Two Weeks and Five Days

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Josh Planos

Assistant Director of Communications
Contact: josh.planos@nufoundation.org

UNO students team with UNMC, Apple Inc. to develop COVID-19 app

It starts with an email notification.

An interesting opportunity. Care to hop on a conference call to discuss?

The three University of Nebraska at Omaha students are intrigued.

 On the phone, the pitch goes like this:

Would you like to build a groundbreaking mobile application with considerable value as a public health tool? It’ll involve collaborating with two teams.

The first is the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, which is rapidly working to quell an unprecedented global health crisis and is also home to the nation’s only federal quarantine unit. The other is Apple Inc.

With the COVID-19 pandemic having recently arrived in Nebraska, spring break has come early.

No need to juggle coursework.

The students quickly agree.

Work begins immediately. Prototyping and wireframing and coding. Analysis and dialogue and refinement. Daily meetings stretch into the pre-dawn hours as each team navigates hunger — the UNMC team subsisted on takeout curry — exhaustion and multiple time zones.

As news segments turn some of their peers infamous during imprudent trips to warmer regions, Keegan Brown, Grayson Stanton and Carly Cameron spend their spring break tucked away in a design studio, maintaining 6 feet of separation and working in conjunction with experts in the fields of medicine and technology.

Less than three weeks later, 1-Check COVID was available in the Apple App Store and was downloaded more than 10,000 times in the first 10 days. The app is now also available on Google Play for Android phone users.

1-Check COVID is a risk-assessment tool that asks the user a series of questions ranging from biographical to geographical before inquiring about symptoms. All are computed in an effort to assess the likelihood of someone having contracted COVID-19. Once the questions are completed, users learn their risk levels: low, urgent or emergent. From there, they are guided toward subsequent steps, whether to continue to monitor their symptoms or contact the public health department. If users agree, they can share their risk profiles with health care professionals, employers and family members, among others.

“This will hopefully be lifesaving,” UNO and UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D., said in a news release, which names the three Scott Scholars, who are all Nebraska natives, computer science majors and underclassmen. Cameron, the oldest of the trio, was 2 years old when the SARS outbreak occurred. She doesn’t remember it.

In a time of crisis, both UNMC and Apple have bet on youth. And youth has delivered.

“What these students did is nothing short of extraordinary,” said Harnoor Singh, director of student development for the Walter Scott, Jr. Scholarship Program (Scott Scholars), which was launched in 1997, thanks to the generous support of the Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation. The program challenges high-achieving engineering and information science and technology students to develop their technical, creative and leadership skills.

“These are the students we’ve been waiting for,” Singh added.


These are the students we've been waiting for.

- Harnoor Singh, director of student development for the Walter Scott, Jr. Scholarship Program

As a Ph.D. candidate at UNMC, Thang Nguyen is researching and developing decision-support tools. An innovator at heart, Nguyen had built one such tool focused on strep throat analysis “as a launching-off point,” he said.

 Then came a pandemic. And an opportunity.

With an understanding of how to parse the literature, decode and translate information into a language that coders can comprehend, Nguyen pivoted to the issue at hand, using the same logic that was already built.

“A lot of what we do is identify problems as they come up and try to just solve in a rapid manner,” said Michael Wadman, M.D., chair of the UNMC Department of Emergency Medicine, “so I think that’s kind of our mindset when we approach any problem.”


A lot of what we do is identify problems as they come up and try to just solve in a rapid manner.

- Michael Wadman, M.D., chair of the UNMC Department of Emergency Medicine

A relationship between Scott Scholars and Apple Inc. formed after UNO students took part in a summerlong workshop called AppJam, which included a trip to the tech giant’s California campus. Gold reached out to Singh to see if a partnership could be struck between the three teams.

After the Scott Scholars, UNMC and Apple began working together, Nguyen said the students’ focus and attention to detail stuck out.

“When you cross from the clinical side to the technical, there’s a lot of language that gets lost,” he said. “There was none of that with this team. Those are special students in a very high-functioning program. I don’t know if you see that in too many places.”

Apple representatives helped the teams troubleshoot bugs and fast-track the app for development.

“Sometimes it takes several weeks just to get approval through the App Store,” Singh said, noting that his team needed all of two weeks and five days to bring the project to the public.

“It has the potential to save so many lives,” he said, “to not only allow folks to assess their risk, but also decrease the pressure on emergency rooms and urgent care clinics.

“Sometimes the universe brings people together. Personally, I couldn’t be more proud of our students. I don’t know how many times I heard Apple executives say, ‘This has never been done before.’

“A public health crisis like this has the ability to leverage human talent to create radically innovative solutions. We took a group of high achievers and placed them in a learning environment that emphasizes human-centered design and were very intentional with teaching them how to navigate ambiguity and how to become comfortable with failure. These are all elements that they’ve learned in the Scott Scholars program.”

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“The longer we retreat from one another, the longer we don’t share that physical space, the less empathetic we get, and the less we care about other people.”

The Epidemic Within the Pandemic

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Robyn Murray

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: robyn.murray@nufoundation.org

UNO Professor Examines Loneliness 

In 2019, researchers and the media began sounding alarm bells about a “loneliness epidemic” — a rise in people reporting feelings of isolation that could become a health crisis, leading to increases in heart disease or even shorter life spans.

And that was before COVID-19. Before the world shut itself indoors and government leaders mandated, and pleaded, for everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.

Isolation and social distancing are terms the world is all too familiar with now.

“I have, for years, been trying to come up with ways to make people more aware,” said Todd Richardson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha Goodrich Scholarship Program who is researching loneliness. “And then this comes around and does it for me.”

What researchers like Richardson have warned of — fraying social connections and the ways people arrange their lives to perpetuate isolation — rocketed to the world’s collective consciousness as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe. As cities, states and countries shut down, everyone felt the pain of isolation. People kept friends and family members at bay. They missed play dates, barbecues, birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. They missed the rush and roar of live music, the shared excitement of home runs and 3-pointers. They wondered if the “sea of red” would ever wash over Memorial Stadium in quite the same way.

And everyone felt those things, together.

“It’s ironic that the experience of loneliness unites us, but I think it can in this moment,” said Richardson. “We’re all under threat from something that doesn’t discriminate between human beings. This is an extra-human threat. So we can bond as humans and realize we’re working together in order to resist this. And I think there’s something really, really beautiful in that.”

But there’s a flip side to that potential beauty. The longer people stay apart, the harder it becomes to return to one another.

“There is a period where you acknowledge the loss in your life, and you lament it, and you try and fill it in whatever way you can,” Richardson said. “But the longer you’re away from other people, the less trust you have for other people, so the harder it gets to break out and to reach out. And at that point, loneliness starts feeding in on itself. It becomes a self-perpetuating kind of cycle.”

Richardson said social interaction influences people in ways they’re not even aware of. Seeing another person express emotions, such as joy and pain, sparks a mirror response in the brain.

“The mere fact of making eye contact with them, or being in the same physical space as them, connects us to them in important ways,” he said. “It makes us acknowledge them as people, as fellow humans, as entities worthy of respect and autonomy.”

Fundamentally, Richardson said, it teaches people empathy.

“The longer we retreat from one another,” he said, “the longer we don’t share that physical space, the less empathetic we get, and the less we care about other people.”

There is also risk in social interaction, and humans are inherently risk-averse, Richardson said. People may want to avoid not just the risk of disease, but the risk of shame, embarrassment or rejection that comes with putting themselves out there in the world. The longer people stay protected, the more comfortable they may become.

“I think that when this abates, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us reacclimating and coming to terms with the fact that we need one another,” he said, “and that is worth the risks that we take.”

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Last updated March 20, 2020

This is information about how the University of Nebraska Foundation is responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health crisis as we continue our commitment to serving each of our valued stakeholders.

Given the challenges our state, country and world face now, the foundation remains more committed than ever to our extremely relevant mission to grow relationships and resources that enable the University of Nebraska to change lives and save lives.

“We are a team, and in times like this, teams rally,” said Brian Hastings, president and CEO. “I have every confidence that we will come through this situation as a stronger organization and with an even greater commitment and appreciation for our mission.”

How we’re responding

Our top priority is the health, safety and well-being of our team members, supporters, alumni and friends. While most foundation employees have been directed to work remotely, our offices — located in Kearney, Lincoln and Omaha — remain open. As we continue to receive and acknowledge all gifts made through the mail or online here at nufoundation.org, our commitment to our mission has become more important than ever.

For the safety of all involved, the foundation has suspended all travel by our team members outside Nebraska and has canceled or postponed gatherings and events, including those held in partnership with the University of Nebraska. In addition, meetings and direct interactions with donors, alumni, university personnel or other stakeholders will be held via video or phone or postponed to a later date.

The NU Foundation is monitoring the latest public health advisements and following updates from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, local health departments and our own experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and evaluate additional measures as needs arise.

Each campus — UNL, UNMC, UNO and UNK — has information available for students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to help navigate this situation as best as possible. We’re especially proud of the important role that the University of Nebraska Medical Center and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine, are taking in the battle against the coronavirus.

The University of Nebraska continues to be an information resource for the news media, including Esquire, CNN, Time, The New York Times and others.

How you can help during this uncertain time

A national emergency declaration in response to a pandemic virus is new to all of us, and as a fundraising organization, we want to be sensitive to the unique situation of every single student, every alumnus and every friend of the University of Nebraska.

With economic uncertainty a reality for many, we ask for financial support with extreme hesitation and prudence. At the same time, some in our university family have asked us how they can help. We’ve highlighted some funds on our website that allow you to help our students, patients and communities during this public health crisis.

From all of us at the foundation, our thoughts are with those around the world who are affected by the coronavirus and the challenges it brings. We encourage you to please take precautions to be safe, and, as always, thank you for all that you do for the University of Nebraska.

Here for you

We remain available to help and serve you. If you need information or assistance, please use any of these ways to reach us:

Meet the students YOU brought to UNO.

While there are many scholarships at UNO, the UNO Fund for Student Scholarships is the only one that sees hundreds of alumni and community members come together and make gifts – last year as low as $5 and as high as $5,000 – to give directly back to students.

We’d like you to meet four of this year’s UNO Fund scholarship recipients:

Jesi Gibbs came to UNO to study biology and psychology after discovering a passion for animal cognition research. However, working 35 hours a week to support herself and pay tuition, she’s found it challenging to balance her job with her studies. She said she cried when she learned she would receive a UNO Fund scholarship. “It has literally changed my life,” Jesi said. “You’ve made it so I can pursue something I feel has meaning in the world. I am so invested in this. I am going to see this through to the end.”

Kevin Ware joined the U.S. Air Force in 2013 partly because he didn’t have the funds to go to college. In his work in environmental inspection at Offutt Air Force Base, he discovered an interest in the human body. Now a full-time student, he has dreams of becoming a physical therapist and owning his own business. He’s using his UNO Fund scholarship to finish his bachelor’s degree and apply to PT programs. “I was excited because I’ve never gotten any other scholarship before,” Kevin said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ll be the first one in my immediate family with a four-year degree.”

Reggie Croom, Jr., recalled teetering on homelessness after high school before connecting with people and organizations that helped him get back on his feet. These experiences have him pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work, and the UNO Fund scholarship is making that dream a reality. “I am so grateful that someone saw the potential in me, because I’m determined to make a difference in people’s lives for the better,” Reggie said. “With this funding, I am able to focus on school and making a difference, and by giving to the scholarship, you are contributing to the work I plan on doing.”

David Festner has spent the last 24 years sharpening his skills – and his blades – as a competitive figure skater. 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 Art and Media. UNO offers one of the best programs in the region for this field, and existing partnerships made the process of transferring credits from community college to achieve a four-year degree a smooth transition. “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.”

Thanks to UNO Fund donors, UNO was able to offer renewable scholarships to these students to cover much of their tuition through graduation. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.

UNO Fund

You can help bring more students like Jesi to UNO. The more people who give, the more scholarships we can award to students who need and deserve them. Make your gift of $25, $50 or $100 to the UNO Fund today.

Nik Stevenson runs an experiment for his Master’s thesis about Splenic Marginal Zone Lymphoma (SMZL)/Mature B-cell lymphoma in Allwine Hall at University of Nebraska at Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, August 3, 2018.

Dreams, Failures and Breakthroughs

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UNO students make advances in cancer research, discover their career passions along the way.

Jacob Robinson’s dream of being a major league pitcher didn’t pan out. Something better did: He teamed up with fellow University of Nebraska at Omaha biology graduate student Nik Stevenson and together, this past year, made a breakthrough in cancer research — one that could make a major impact in the lives of people around the world who are fighting a rare type of lymphoma. And along the way, the two say, they discovered passions that could make a major impact in their own lives and careers.

They credit the supportive culture at UNO.

Says Robinson: “People here, especially the science faculty, are so willing to help students that I really felt like my education here was great. Because I was willing to put in the effort, people were always willing to provide opportunities for me to go as far as I wanted to go.”

Says Stevenson: “You can fail 10, 20, 100 times, and the faculty here will help you succeed. It’s an environment where you feel confident that even if you fail, you’re ultimately going to succeed, and that’s pretty important to help you flourish.”

The cancer they’re studying is called splenic marginal zone lymphoma, or SMZL. It’s a type of white blood cell cancer that hasn’t been studied a lot because it’s so rare. SMZL cases have an overall survival prognosis after diagnosis of eight to 11 years, so it’s a rather slow-progressing cancer.

But anywhere from 10% to 15% of those cases progress to a much more aggressive form in which the overall survival prognosis drops to three to five years. Their research has shown promise in predicting how aggressive a person’s cancer will be based on specific genetic markers, a breakthrough that could lead to a way to more easily diagnose this cancer.

Stevenson did the “wet bench” side of their research — the hands-on work with the cancer cells themselves. Robinson did the big-data side, studying the genetic profiles of patients with SMZL and looking for patterns for this specific blood cancer vs. other similar lymphomas.

“It’s not a terribly lethal (cancer), unless it transforms,” Robinson says. “What my research did is, I found a grouping of markers that is pretty highly predictive for the basis of diagnosis for this SMZL patient.

“Instead of having to go through a bunch of different tests, ideally you would be able to just have this panel of genetic markers from a biopsy, and you’d say yes or no, this is the lymphoma that they’re afflicted with.”

If patients have the slow-growing type, they wouldn’t have their lives disrupted as much with frequent biopsies, along with the waiting around for results, which can be scary. It also would provide more accurate diagnosis and information on the outcome of the disease’s progression.

Says Stevenson: “It would allow them to pretty much have a better quality of life for the time being.”

People here, especially the science faculty, are so willing to help students that I really felt like my education here was great. Because I was willing to put in the effort, people were always willing to provide opportunities for me to go as far as I wanted to go.

- Jacob Robinson
Nik Stevenson, left, and Jacob Robinson, right, credit UNO's supportive culture for their recent successes, including a breakthrough in research that will allow health care professionals to more easily diagnose a rare form of cancer.

The two conducted their research in Allwine Hall in the lab of Christine Cutucache, Ph.D., a rock star professor who holds the Dr. George Haddix Community Chair in Science at UNO. They call her “Dr. C.”

Dr. C, they say, gave amazing guidance and support (and coffee and doughnuts and a box overflowing with healthy snacks, which sits in the corner of the lab’s small conference room).

She served as the liaison between them and physicians and other medical professionals at the University of Nebraska Medical Center as they tried to determine the real-world usefulness of their research.

“It’s been sort of the perfect mix to have UNO as a home base but still be able to access a world-renowned med center right down the street,” Robinson says.

UNO, they say, helped them make major breakthroughs in their own lives, too.

Back in high school at Omaha North, Robinson says, he was mainly just interested in baseball, not school work. He struggled in chemistry. His dad connected him with a friend who was a retired UNO chemistry professor, James Wood, who became his tutor.

“He basically showed me how cool chemistry could be,” Robinson says.

That ignited his love for learning. (It also helped, Robinson says, smiling, that he fell in love with a great student his senior year — a young woman who is now his wife.)

At a UNO chemistry department awards night a few years back, Dr. Wood was given an envelope with a name inside. He was asked to open it and announce the chemistry student who’d be named the latest recipient of the James K. and Kathleen Wood Scholarship.

Dr. Wood didn’t know who it’d be.

It was Robinson, then a UNO junior.

Stevenson’s original dream for his career – to be a brain surgeon — also didn’t pan out.

He was a military brat, he says, born in Germany. He lived in Texas and South Dakota. He was only 8 years old and his family was living in Papillion, Nebraska, when his young mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.

“It was everywhere when they first saw it,” he says. “It just socks you in the gut when you find out something like that.”

The cancer eventually spread to her brain, and she had brain surgery. Stevenson spent a lot of time in the hospital with her until she died when he was 12. He’d wanted to go to medical school, he says, but not getting in his first try made him reflect on that path, and he realized it wasn’t actually his main interest or career aim.

“That was a blessing in disguise because, through a little reflection, I realized I didn’t want to do that,” Stevenson says.

He met with Dr. C a year before applying to UNO and came to the university for his master’s degree because of the opportunity to join her lab.

Dr. C also runs a community outreach program called NE STEM 4U in which UNO students work to inspire middle school students in the community to consider careers in STEM fields down the road. (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

Stevenson loves to coach soccer, too.

“Developing them as people, not just as athletes but just as people who can contribute to society, is a big thing I enjoy,” he says.

Dr. C noticed Stevenson’s strengths as a mentor and connected him to NE STEM 4U. He loved it.

He was its graduate adviser this past year and recently accepted a full-time job at UNO, where he will be doing science education research, continuing his role in the NE STEM 4U program and leading professional development opportunities for undergraduates and others.

“Developing people to excel in science so that one day they may pave the way for great development in the cancer research realm or in a plethora of other STEM fields,” Stevenson says, “is really my passion and my goal.”

He hopes to keep coaching soccer on the side.

This August, Robinson will start pharmacy school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Stevenson thinks he’ll stay in Nebraska.

“My fiancée is a farm girl from southeast Nebraska,” he says, “so I think we’re going to end up calling somewhere around Nebraska home.”

Stevenson smiles.

“Nebraska is pretty good.”

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