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.

Engineering Nebraska's Future

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Scholarship inspires soon-to-be engineers

Brett Halleen doesn’t need to look far to find what has unlocked every door in his life.

He need only look down at his hands.

Hallen’s hands spin stories, each knuckle a different chapter. When he rubs his leathery palms together, you can hear the stories taking shape.

His hands didn’t always look this way, he’ll tell you. They grew callused on his grandparents’ farm in Clarks, Nebraska, where, as a kid he and his brother would spend every weekend during harvest season. His insatiable curiosity to learn “how everything worked” turned his hands rough and ragged as he felt his way around unfamiliar machinery. They grew swollen and bruised as he drove opposing linemen away from the quarterbacks he protected as a center on the Lincoln Northeast High School football team.

And, in a little over a year, if all goes according to plan, his hands will carry an engineering degree across a stage inside Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena.

“I really enjoy working with my hands,” Halleen said, just so there’s no confusion.

A childhood immersed in agriculture bred a blue-collar work ethic that persists today. His formative years were spent in the shadow of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln — the “Big Ten school in my backyard,” he said — so it should come as no surprise that he was determined to become a Husker. But despite that resolution, his hands chronicle a life spent in pursuit of the unknown.

They changed because he changed.

A winding journey through fields and hallways brought him to the doorstep of a diploma. And a man who resides 1,700 miles west made sure his hands were free of debt when he arrived at this moment.

As a kid he never even heard of in his entire life, to pick me and say, 'I'm going to put my faith in him and help him through college.' It has pushed me to work harder.

- Brett Halleen

Ken Jones came to UNL in 1964 with two well-worn hands of his own.

His father, an engineer, spent much of his free time working on projects around the house, one day deciding that he’d like to own a television. Nobody on the block had one.

So he and Jones built one from scratch, the son holding the resistors and tube sockets while the father soldered.

Jones was proficient in math and science, so engineering came natural to him.

“My dad always told me, ‘Take the hardest thing you possibly can. If you can’t make it, you’ll always know you couldn’t,’” Jones said. “Engineering teaches you how to think, how to reason and solve problems. You can use it in any aspect of your career. It opens up vast, new possibilities.”

A half-century later, Jones has obtained degrees from UNL and Harvard University, served in the U.S. Navy and launched a number of successful entrepreneurial ventures. He swapped frigid Nebraska winters for sun-drenched, seasonless weather along the California coastline. He also built a house with his bare hands — more or less. “I learned those skills from my dad,” he said.

For two decades, Jones has provided full-tuition scholarships to UNL engineering students, provided that they’re graduates of Lincoln Northeast High School, his alma mater, and maintain a certain grade-point average. While the financial support comes from Jones, the scholarships are listed under his parents’ names, a way for Jones to honor them.

He meets with Jones Scholars annually, often spending his time alleviating their academic anxieties.

“You get discouraged,” Jones said of the oft-dizzying engineering coursework. “The math is difficult.”

Jones always concludes with a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” 

He tells the students that they don’t have to know where they’re going. They just need to start.

“I see so many kids that are afraid to start because they don’t know how it’s going to end,” he said. “But you can make the end yourself.”

I would rather work hard and constantly stay busy than do something that might be easy.

- Reagan Uhlmann

Reagan Uhlmann’s hands do a lot of the talking.

They swing wildly when her excitement builds, like when she explains how birds are the most recent link to dinosaurs. They rest softly, palm-down, when she turns introspective, like when contemplating what she’d pursue if not engineering. They stretch outward when she’s inquisitive, as if pulling someone into a conversation with an invisible rope.

She followed in the footsteps of her mother and grandfather to Lincoln Northeast. A third-generation Rocket, she competed in athletics and was heavily involved in extracurriculars. Like her mother, she’s lived her entire life in the same home. Like her mother, she understands the sun will indeed rise the following day, even if the Husker football team never wins another game.

She followed, too, in the footsteps of her father, a UNL graduate, who had a red N added to the basement stairs. “I got raised up a Husker,” she said proudly.

Uhlmann’s sister, Lilly, is a few years younger. Despite her independent streak — and younger-sibling insistence on carving a separate lane through life — Lilly followed Reagan to the UNL College of Engineering. It should be clarified that she’s pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, the only field Reagan never dabbled in, even as her major changed three separate times.

This weekend the two are picking out Lilly’s classes. Reagan smiles at that. Now that they share the same campus, she relishes that her sister increasingly turns to her for advice. During sorority recruitment week, Lilly called her every night, ultimately settling on Delta Gamma. Reagan is a member of Kappa Delta, whose house sits next door.

The two enjoy ribbing their father, who after a “difficult” freshman-year college adjustment, swapped his electrical engineering major for construction management.

“We joke that he couldn’t do it,” Reagan said, laughing. “But not many can.”

Ken has made college a possibility for me and people like me. He’s a great advocate for future generations of engineers.

- Reagan Uhlmann

Halleen was taken by agricultural engineering during his senior year of high school, how someone “can do almost anything with it,” he said. Farming taught him how to survive — season to season, year to year. His parents work for a small business in town. Halleen worried that he’d feel siloed as a professional, so he settled on an industry critical to the state — its past and future — and an area of engineering that isn’t governed by one specific principle.

A seed was planted years earlier, when Jones visited Lincoln Northeast High School and shared his story. “It really opened my eyes,” Halleen said. “He was kind of a small-town Nebraska boy.” Like Halleen.

As the projector flashed slides of Jones’ experience in the Navy and how his education brought him around the globe, Halleen mulled over his future.

***

This semester, Reagan Uhlmann drives 2½ hours to campus for Friday classes. She spends the rest of the week working full time in Sioux City in a co-op at Cargill, an oil refinery lab. Not only is Uhlmann experiencing life outside of Nebraska for the first time, she’s applying her education in a professional environment.

“The cliche is that you only use 10 percent of your degree once you actually get into the field,” she said, “so I think it’s nice to see what you actually need and what you’ll use. When I do come back to school, I tune in on what my specialty will actually require.”

Growing up, while others dreamed of athletic pursuits or becoming astronauts, Uhlmann initially wanted to create prosthetic skins to curb animal testing.

“I’ve dialed it down a bit since then,” she said. But like Jones, she enjoys thinking outside the box.

“The ideas that he comes up with, it was him kind of seeing a problem and going out of his way to solve it,” she said. “I think that a lot of people kind of get into this mindset of, ‘I’m only going to do what I’m being asked.’ He’s a go-getter and goes above and beyond to try to figure out some of those bigger problems. I see that in myself.”

And like Jones, Uhlmann refuses to stay bored for long.

“I would rather work hard and constantly stay busy than do something that might be easy,” she said, her voice unwavering. “He really likes to push himself and stay busy.”

Thanks to her scholarship, Uhlmann can decide her future, something she understands is a rare gift.

“My degree has never been money-driven,” she said. “But it also doesn’t have to be. If there’s a dream job that pays a certain amount less than another, I’m not going to be forced to take a job just because I have to pay off debt. And that’s a really great feeling.”

Even thouh Uhlmann’s parents had some money saved up for her college education, the relief of no financial burden can’t be overstated.

“Ken has made college a possibility for me and people like me,” she said. “He’s a great advocate for future generations of engineers. I’ve had a great time in college, between classes and friends and everything. Although I’m in a situation where my parents would’ve still gotten me to college (without this scholarship), I know not all of the other scholars could possibly say that. Without this scholarship, college would’ve been a lot more stressful. So having that stress off my shoulders has really helped shape my college experience in a very positive way.”

***

When asked how the Jones Scholarship changed his life, Halleen looks at his compass: his hands.

“It just means so much to me,” he said. “As a kid he never even heard of in his entire life, to pick me and say, ‘I’m going to put my faith in him and help him through college.’ It has pushed me to work harder.”

The day Halleen learned he was going to be awarded the scholarship, he was called to the counselor’s office.

A phone call was waiting. Maggie Jobes, the UNL College of Engineering director of recruitment, was on the line.

“I was speechless,” Halleen said.

Eventually, he rubbed his hands together, composed himself and prepared to return to class.

His story couldn’t stop there, after all.

He stared at his hands.

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