From the Farm to Air Force One

Jeff Zeleny Leans into his Nebraska Brand

Jeff Zeleny was in Miami earlier this year working on a story for CNN about the future of the Republican Party. As he approached downtown and took in the skyline — glass skyscrapers set against clear blue water — it reminded him of the first time he came to the city.

The 1992 Orange Bowl. Zeleny, who graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1996, had traveled to cheer on the Nebraska football team as a member of the Cornhusker Marching Band. A trumpet player in high school, he was living out a childhood dream.

“I knew the only way I was ever going to make it to the football field at Memorial Stadium was to be in the band,” he joked. “Every time I see the skyline, I think that’s exactly what young, 18-year-old Jeff saw at the Orange Bowl. It was just so cool.”

That trip to Miami did more than bring Zeleny closer to the action (even though he had to watch Nebraska get shut out 22-0). Just as it had many times already in his life, the University of Nebraska, by bringing him to this new city, inspired a sense of possibility.

“It just opened up my eyes to really wanting to see the country and travel the country,” Zeleny said.

Thirty years later, that’s exactly what he has done. Zeleny, who grew up in Exeter, Nebraska, population 525, has traveled to all 50 states and more than two dozen countries across six continents. He has covered four presidencies, first for the Chicago Tribune, then The New York Times and ABC News and today as chief national affairs correspondent for CNN.

“The ability to watch history unfold up close and hold our government officials to account and just tell the story of a changing country and world has been a dream come true,” he said.

Zeleny has always loved the news. As a kid on the farm in Exeter, he read every newspaper he could get his hands on. One of his first bylines was an article on a grain elevator explosion in Exeter in the Fillmore County News. And every night, he sat down with his family to watch the evening news. He never imagined one day he would be one of those people on TV.

“I graduated from a class of 12 people,” Zeleny said. “That probably was a little beyond my imagination of what I could do.”

A bigger obstacle: Zeleny struggled with public speaking. He stuttered as a kid, and from age 5, he began years of hard work to overcome it. Along with his family, Zeleny spent hours working with speech-language pathologists at the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic on UNL’s East Campus.

“I spent a lot of time there as a young boy,” Zeleny said. “That was just more helpful than anything we could have imagined at the time.”

Zeleny spoke publicly about his speech impediment at a commencement address he gave at UNL in 2012.

“One of the reasons I decided to talk about it in that speech is the university and all it does are so helpful to the citizens of the state, to students and young people,” he said. “Without that, there’s no question in my mind I would not have had the life that I’ve had, the career that I’ve had … It was the power of the university. It was huge for me.”

In his speech, Zeleny encouraged students to tackle life’s challenges head-on.

“Step outside your comfort zones,” he said. “Confront your fears, and don’t be afraid of failing.”

Not only did the expertise of the university assist Zeleny as a child, but the education he received at Nebraska also helped position him for his highly successful career, which includes a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Chicago Tribune. In fact, his Nebraska connection helped him score one of his biggest internships. At an interview with The Wall Street Journal in his senior year, Zeleny said the newspaper’s Boston bureau chief was enthralled by his middle-of-the-country roots. It was practically all they talked about during the interview.

“I remember it struck me at that moment — ‘Wow, this is an attribute,’” Zeleny said. “This is something that makes me a little bit unique. That was the moment I realized it didn’t matter if I went to Harvard or not, my Nebraska education, my Nebraska brand was impressive to people.”

Zeleny said he leaned into that brand, and it has served him well.

“It’s shorthand for hardworking, honest and humble,” he said.

A trustee at the University of Nebraska Foundation and an engaged foundation and university volunteer, Zeleny said he believes in giving back to his alma mater. Zeleny supports the journalism college at UNL and the Daily Nebraskan, where he served as editor-in-chief.

“The university was such an important part of my growth and my education, of my being able to learn about the country and the world,” Zeleny said. “I think it’s a world-class institution. It’s one thing that unifies the state. It’s something that everybody should be proud of, both in the state or anyone who’s associated with it. So I’m happy to do whatever small part I can to help it along.”

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