NBDC seeks to lessen the impact
Hui Ru Ng might not have boarded a flight to Nebraska if not for Tommy Lee.
Ru (as her friends call her) was raised in Malaysia and dreamed of traveling to the U.S. to enroll at a college that was equally affordable and reputable. She also dreamed of seeing the sun-swept landscape exhibited in the since-canceled TV show “Tommy Lee Goes to College,” which chronicled the former Mötley Crüe drummer’s uninspired attempt to assimilate at Nebraska’s land grant institution.
Ru ultimately chose the University of Nebraska at Omaha and boarded an airplane for the first time.
“Back home, it’s summer all year,” she said. “When I got to the airport, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I thought.’ But I grew to love this place because of the people. I will never forget how Nebraskans supported me.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Ru applied to be a graduate assistant at the Nebraska Business Development Center located at UNO. Oluwaseun Olaore (Seun, as his friends call him) applied around the same time.
A project director back home in Nigeria, Olaore foresaw a professional ceiling unless he had an advanced degree.
Ru and Seun’s two years with the NBDC coincided with a 100-year flood and a COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly the vulnerabilities of the Midwestern economy were tested like never before.
“This whole experience actually made me realize that I want to start a small business,” said Ru after having experienced a frightening two-part course on the financial realities of small-business ownership in times of crisis. “You get inspired by clients, see their innovation and passion.”
Seun too came away from this experience reaffirmed in his commitment to the industry.
“I’ve been able to help business owners figure out a way around these problems,” he said. “This hasn’t scared me away. It has strengthened me.”
Since its founding in 1977, NBDC has operated with a statewide mission out of its office in UNO’s College of Business Administration. For nearly four decades, Robert Bernier shepherded the center as its director.
“My opinion is that small business is more important to Nebraska, more important to our communities than anything,” said Catherine Lang, assistant dean of the UNO College of Business Administration who took over as NBDC state director for Bernier in 2016. “Nebraska small-business owners are innovative, resilient and tenacious. They care about their community.”
With Lang’s guidance, NBDC has assisted more than 8,500 clients — everything from fire-rated window providers to monarch butterfly habitat conservers — and helped them obtain in excess of $590 million in government contracts. All told, NBDC had a $1.9 billion impact on Nebraska’s economy over just the last four years, either directly creating or saving nearly 6,000 jobs.
If the NBDC is a tent, there are five support poles beneath: the Small Business Development Center, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, Innovation and Technology Assistance, Professional and Organizational Development, and NU Connections.
There are centers in Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, Norfolk, North Platte, Omaha, Scottsbluff and Wayne.
As Lang puts it, “We are kind of campus agnostic. We serve the entire state.”
One-on-one discussions are confidential and available free of charge. Proposals are tailored to the client.
“We work with them to develop their business plan,” Lang said. “That way they’re 100 percent intimately knowledgeable about financials, market research, everything.”
Located in UNO’s Mammel Hall, the center can tap into the university’s student body and faculty. “There’s a nice little symbiotic relationship between the academic world and the business world,” said UNO economics professor Christopher Decker.
Bernier deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the success of the graduate assistant program, Lang contends.
At any given time, Ru juggles a dozen clients on the innovation and technology side of the operation, helping them identify which grants to pursue. Olaore works with the small-business development center to help companies flesh out business plans, construct financial projections and apply for loans.
“They hire a lot of international students in the office,” Ru said, mentioning that three continents are currently represented by graduate assistants. “We have great diversity.”
When the pandemic arrived, NBDC was prepared.
“We had to be ready,” Lang said. “Businesses all over the state are contacting us for help — clients who are trying to navigate this whole CARES act, SBA loans, unemployment insurance, IRS rules.”
The inspired work has left an impact on those providing it.
“These people are so passionate,” Ru said. “You learn a lot from them.”
Lang loves how interconnected the NBDC is, that resources are available no matter where a company sprouts from. And indeed, there is an irony almost poetic about salt-of-the-earth Nebraskans turning to students born thousands of miles away for guidance through the all-encompassing storm.
“I know we’re just a sliver of the entire ecosystem of Nebraska,” Lang said. “But I’m so very proud. We are always going to do the best we can.”
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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.
The Peter Kiewit Foundation has awarded a challenge grant of $225,000 to the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) College of Information Science & Technology (IS&T) for its CodeCrush program, a series of events designed to introduce 8th- and 9th-graders to iSTEM, an integrated approach to studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The funds, which are committed to the University of Nebraska Foundation, will specifically be used to help continue the program’s biannual immersion experiences and the annual Summer Summit for CodeCrush alumnae, teachers, mentors and other stakeholders. As part of this matching grant challenge, the University of Nebraska Foundation will work closely with UNO to secure an additional $225,000 in contributions over the next three years.
“The college’s programs are bigger, and more diverse, than ever before. We know this positive shift is thanks to efforts like CodeCrush,” Deepak Khazanchi, Ph.D., associate dean at the College of Information Science & Technology said. “Today, more and more students know that they have a place in information technology thanks to the continued support from the Peter Kiewit Foundation. As we look forward to the next chapter of CodeCrush, we hope to help eliminate the gender gap for good.”
CodeCrush is part of the college’s Women in IT Initiative, a community task force of IT leaders dedicated to finding actionable solutions to close the gender gap and meet the local and national workforce deficit in IT.
“We’re honored to offer our continued support to the College of Information Science & Technology and its efforts to make the tech workforce a more inclusive and diverse space,” Wendy Boyer, director of programs at the Peter Kiewit Foundation said. “This is an urgent call to the Omaha metro to support programs like CodeCrush, and together we can help inspire a diverse student population to pursue IT and help address the critical talent shortage our community is fighting.”
This fall’s CodeCrush will be held October 23–25, with the summer CodeCrush summit and spring CodeCrush immersion experience dates to be announced soon. For more information or to contribute to the program and help meet its fundraising challenge, see codecrush.unomaha.edu.
CodeCrush combats the challenges and negative perceptions that may keep girls from pursuing IT education and careers. The immersion experience takes place over three days and three nights. Participating students take part in half-day educational workshops illustrating the diversity of IT with exposure to areas such as bioinformatics, cybersecurity, mobile application design and IT innovation.
Afternoon and evening sessions show IT in action through experiences such as tours of local Fortune 500 headquarters and an Omaha start-up company crawl, illustrating the vibrant community that is being nurtured and grown in Omaha. CodeCrush students also hear panel discussions and keynote speeches from leaders, current students, UNO alumni and many others who are mentors and role models in this domain.
Additionally, a major component of CodeCrush requires students to bring along a teacher-mentor who attends parallel workshops on how to infuse IT concepts into their current curricula and champion such skills and content in their schools.
During the summer, CodeCrush hosts an annual Summer Summit, which brings together all past CodeCrush participants, students who may not have been able to attend the immersion experience and the IT community. The day-and-a-half conference celebrates diversity in IT and helps introduce the audience to even more role models with varying tracks centered on leadership, technology and inclusive spaces.
CodeCrush has made significant strides in helping bring more awareness of IT careers into classrooms:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in computing and IT are expected to grow 13% from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average of all other occupations. The bureau reports the median annual wage for IT positions was nearly $90,000, compared to $40,000 for all occupations. Despite this expected growth, the number of available, qualified IT professionals is low, and women comprise just 26% of all computing-related occupations in the United States. According to Girls Who Code, the largest drop in participation of girls in computer science happens between the ages of 13 and 17.
For information about the Women in IT Initiative, or how to support it, contact Amanda Rucker, communications specialist for the College of Information Science & Technology, at 402-554-2070 or visit codecrush.unomaha.edu.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“Nebraska is pretty good.”