The University of Nebraska Emergency Assistance Fund supports students and employees on all four campuses in times of personal hardship.

This year when our campuses were mostly shut down and classes were shifted online due to the coronavirus, things were especially challenging for students who lost jobs or needed to find new housing.

But generous alumni and friends stepped up and helped with donations to the University of Nebraska Emergency Assistance Fund when they were needed most.

Financial assistance totaling $105,592 has been awarded to 214 students.

Here are some of their stories.

Kelsie, a UNMC Kearney student, lost all three of her jobs when her employers shuttered their businesses due to the pandemic. “What do I do now?” she wondered. “Working is how I pay for everything. My house, my bills, my health insurance, car insurance and school.” Kelsie’s father died during her freshman year of high school, and her mom is a single parent of three on one income. The money Kelsie received from the university crisis fund “made a huge difference” for her and her family.

Angela, a Ph.D. student at UNL, is disabled with a chronic illness and is raising a five-year-old son while caring for her partner, who has a traumatic brain injury and is battling brain cancer. Angela had to pause her mortgage and a loan payment and said she often feels at her wits’ end. She received assistance from the University of Nebraska Emergency Assistance Fund and used it to pay rent and buy healthy groceries. It gave her a breather, which she’s grateful for. “I’m just at that edge all the time,” she said, “and it affects my health.”

On UNO’s campus, Rhea lost her job at the campus recreation center when it was shut down. “It was a relief to be able to get groceries and pay off some utilities that were piling up,” she said, after receiving help from the university crisis fund. Rhea said, “I wasn’t expecting to get this fund, but I’m very, very grateful that I did … words can’t even describe how this fund has helped, to be honest.”

These are real students and real members of the University of Nebraska family, and their lives were improved thanks to generous individuals who know that even the smallest donation has made a difference and continues to do so.

Applications for relief from the University of Nebraska Emergency Assistance Fund continue to roll in. Please contribute if you’d like to join others in supporting the many students who still need help.

Thank you and best wishes for the health and safety of you and your loved ones.

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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Two Weeks and Five Days

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.

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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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The novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Willa Cather: A Pandemic, a Novel and a Pulitzer Prize

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Jennifer Overkamp

Assistant Director of Development Communications
Contact: jennifer.overkamp@nufoundation.org

UNL alumna Willa Cather survived a pandemic from 1918-1920

University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumna Willa Cather was not only a famous writer, she also survived a pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu ripped across the globe from 1918 to 1920, its spread accelerated by the troop movements and combat conditions of World War I. At that time, Cather was in her 40s and living in New York City, having left teaching and magazine editing behind to be a full-time writer.

Cather’s letters describe some things that sound familiar today. She wrote to her mother that she needed to spend some time in the hospital, but her doctors suggested waiting until the flu had died down (Letter No. 2414). In the same letter, she added that her friend Ethel Litchfield was exhausted from caring for her sick children, so Cather had her over for a respite, complete with a good meal and a little time to rest by the fire. In a note to her Aunt Frances Smith Cather in November 1919, Cather said that she couldn’t write too much, as she had so many letters of condolence to write “to friends who have been bereaved by this terrible scourge of Influenza” (Letter No. 440).

Cather knew how brutal the flu could be — she caught it herself in September 1919 and had a bad time of it. She wrote to a friend, “I have been in bed with Influenza for two weeks, and it has ended in a stubborn bronchitis which refuses to quit me and keeps hovering on the edge of pneumonia. … I am simply unable to make any plans at present — I’ve had to call off ever so many engagements on account of this stupid illness” (Letter No. 474).

In an odd twist of literary fate, Cather’s bout with the flu ended up strongly influencing the novel she was writing at the time, the story of a Nebraska farm boy serving in what was then called the Great War. The doctor who treated her during her illness had previously been a physician on a troop transport ship that was struck with influenza. Cather borrowed the doctor’s journal and used it extensively when writing her novel.

That novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Please visit the Willa Cather Archive at cather.unl.edu to explore more of Cather’s life and letters.  Thanks to the support of donors and UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and University Libraries, this free online archive shares a vast collection of Cather material with the world. The collection includes not only Cather’s writing but also photos, letters, interviews and biographies.

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How you can help during this uncertain time

UNMC and Nebraska Medicine are among those helping care for people who may be affected in some way by the coronavirus. They expertly handled the treatment of patients with Ebola and are among the leaders in the treatment, training and quarantine methods for highly infectious diseases.

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The Big Blue Cupboard at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is helping students in need.

Stocking Up On Essentials And Empathy

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Josh Planos

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

UNK’s Big Blue Cupboard helps students in need. 

Luis Olivas knows the contours of Grand Central Apple Market well.

He’s learned who the quickest baggers are and who will point out active markdowns.

Rolling through checkout with 45 TV dinners or enough produce to comfortably feed a residence hall typically elicits a second glance, a probing question or two.

Olivas has grown accustomed to the attention. One of his responsibilities as diversity coordinator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is to keep the Big Blue Cupboard stocked. So as the coronavirus emptied businesses throughout the country, Olivas was still making biweekly speed-runs through the grocery store, filling his cart with peculiar quantities of food.

Hundreds of students rely on the Big Blue Cupboard — and, in turn, Olivas — whether learning is remote or not. To keep the cupboard operational during the spring, Olivas alternated shifts with Juan Guzman, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.

Both were first-generation, Latino college students who earned associate degrees at Central Community College before attending and serving UNK.

“We have many immigrant and international students as well as refugee and asylum-seeking students,” Olivas said. “Thus, it’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.”

It’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.

- Luis Olivas, diversity coordinator in the UNK Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion

As an undergraduate student, when Guzman returned to Kearney from weekend trips home to Grand Island, he made sure to have meals in tow.

He vividly remembers the hunger that comes from prioritizing tuition or rent as a month winds to a close. And he remembers the strength of a community that lifts each member in times of need.

“Juan is a big inspiration to UNK students and the UNK community,” said Sergio Ceja, a Loper graduate who’s currently studying at the University of Alabama.

Olivas said, “He’s one of the university’s biggest assets. If it wasn’t for him, dozens if not hundreds of students wouldn’t have been able to come to college or realize their full potential.”

Nineteen years after Guzman arrived at UNK, his most indelible marks can be found in a quiet corner on the first floor of the student union.

After watching a conference presentation on food insecurity, Guzman vowed to bring a food pantry to his alma mater. The Big Blue Cupboard opened in April 2012 and has since served thousands of students, staff and community members, with an average of 1,200 food and hygiene items distributed each month.

“We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs,” Guzman said.

Students can use a mobile app to shop for items, which in turn helps employees learn the diet of the student body. And understanding that audience is paramount.

“We can have 5,000 creamed corn cans in there,” Olivas said, “but that doesn’t mean students are going to take them.”

That the cupboard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of campus isn’t by accident. Stigmas can turn hungry students away, so Guzman was careful in the planning phase to mitigate this issue.

We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs.

- Juan Guzman, director of the UNK Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion

Even as students left campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Guzman and Olivas saw an immediate uptick in demand, with more than 1,000 items leaving the shelves over a single week. Frozen meals went especially fast, as daily food trips were suddenly questionable. So Guzman and Olivas submitted a request for a second deep freezer.

Approval was granted within five minutes.

“We can’t say enough about the leadership here,” Guzman said.

Shortly after Chancellor Doug Kristensen announced that in-person classes would be suspended, he raised an additional $10,000 for the cupboard in private donations.

“Putting food on the tables of students is the most fundamental thing I can do to help,” Kristensen said.

Kristensen has led UNK for nearly two decades. Campus support for The Big Blue Cupboard is on the short list of what makes him most proud.  

“When you watch our students give their own time and money to go out and serve those meals, I’ll remember that for a very long time,” he said.

Stepping into the unknown was an on-the-fly exercise for everyone, Guzman said, but it was deftly navigated, from the top down.

Speaking on the phone at the cupboard, Olivas said, “Even though most of our students may not physically be here, they know that we as staff and faculty are 100 percent there for them. That connection has not been lost.”

The cupboard is home to a thousand ingredients and two eternal vows:

No student should go hungry.

What’s mine is yours.

“I feel like that sets UNK and the University of Nebraska system apart: Even though our buildings may be closed, the learning is still happening,” Olivas said. “Those students are still being provided for. They are still safe.”

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Engineering Nebraska’s Future

For two decades, Ken Jones has provided full-tuition scholarships to UNL engineering students, provided that they’re graduates of Lincoln Northeast High School, his alma mater.

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