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.”