by Jennifer Overkamp

Gresham, Nebraska, native William Wilton is a small-town kid with a big heart. He’s a sophomore at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, majoring in education and planning to be a family and consumer science teacher. He wants to change lives for the better, to inspire his future students just like his teachers inspired him.

“Education is all about preparing students with the skills that they need to succeed,” Wilton said. “For me, teaching Family and Consumer Sciences will give me the opportunity to inspire future students to be successful members of their families and communities through the lessons taught in my classroom.”

Wilton is one of 40 UNL students in the inaugural cohort of the Teacher Scholars Academy, an honors academy for education majors that includes students at three of the four University of Nebraska campuses. He’s also one part of the solution to a big problem: Nebraska’s teacher shortage.

It’s easier to solve a problem than to fix a crisis. The Nebraska teacher shortage is a problem that is slowly, quietly turning into a crisis.

It comes down to math. From 2009 to 2017, the number of K-12 students in Nebraska rose by 8%. Yet, in that same timeframe, the number of college students studying education fell by 48%, according to data from the Nebraska Department of Education. That adds up to a shortage of teachers, especially when combined with the fact that Nebraska, like the rest of the nation, has a problem retaining teachers. The Nebraska Department of Education data also show that 30% of new Nebraska teachers leave the profession within their first six years, most in the first two or three years.

The result of this combination of circumstances is that a gradually increasing number of teaching jobs are filled with teachers who are not fully qualified. This usually means that they have only a provisional license or they lack an endorsement in the needed area. However, the number of positions left vacant is also gradually increasing. From just 12 unfilled teaching jobs across Nebraska in the 2013-2014 school year, the number rose to 36 in 2018-2019.

In 2019, it was 62.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is expected to exacerbate the problem.

“Pre-pandemic, I was certainly concerned about the efforts to recruit and retain teachers in the profession,” said Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, Ph.D. “Post-pandemic, I expect the same attrition trends, but at a more accelerated pace.”

The William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation has long been interested in supporting education. A few years ago, John Scott, vice president of the William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation, and Matt Boyd, assistant vice president with the University of Nebraska Foundation, started discussing a plan to address the teacher shortage. What sealed the deal for Scott was that the plan they created called for a team effort: University of Nebraska administrators, students, faculty on three campuses and donors would all be part of the solution.

Through the University of Nebraska Foundation, the William & Ruth Scott Family Foundation, along with other major donors, joined leadership at UNL, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Nebraska at Omaha to create the Teacher Scholars Academy. This university program provides top undergraduate students studying education with scholarships, professional development opportunities and a cohort experience where scholars move through all four years of their bachelor’s degree within a group of other high-achieving students. Fundraising to support future cohorts is ongoing.

High-achieving students planning to study education apply to the academy before they start their bachelor’s degree. Each year, UNL and UNK choose 40 new scholars, and UNO chooses 24.

Now in its second year, the academy includes more than 200 talented scholars, all eager to make a positive difference through education. They attend regular education classes and a few academy-only classes.

“The Teacher Scholars Academy is much more than just an honors academy for education majors,” said Braden Foreman, coordinator of UNL’s Teacher Scholars Academy. “It tackles the teacher shortage head on, taking strategic, practical steps to recruit the right students and then give them the financial, professional and personal support to excel and lead. The goal is to help mold future teachers who are really effective.”

The academy is specifically focused on addressing the overall issue of the workforce shortage in education by meeting a number of key challenges.

CHALLENGE: Student loan debt and its impact on students’ career choices.

STRATEGY: The academy offers full-tuition scholarships and a generous stipend for room and board to every scholar for all four years of their degree.

Scott best summed up the importance of this strategy, saying, “When you’re trying to recruit kids of the caliber that we’re trying to get, you’re looking at kids who could easily choose a different career path with the potential to make more money. The reality is that student debt plays a big role. We’re trying to remove the financial obstacles that could potentially get in the way of kids choosing education as a career path.”

UNO scholar Alexandra Espinoza said the scholarship was “a huge relief.”  She’s preparing for her dream job of teaching high school Spanish and English, a job where she knows her outsized enthusiasm isn’t going to be matched with a correspondingly big paycheck.

“I’m really excited that I’m going to be teaching!” Espinoza said. “But it’s also not a high salary job, and I would have had thousands in debt. The scholarship was definitely a true blessing. It took away the stress.”

CHALLENGE: Ensuring the most talented, passionate future teachers have the best possible training.

STRATEGY: The academy recruits top students, considering not only grades and test scores but also community service, leadership and enthusiasm for teaching, with an eye toward increasing diversity in education as well. Along with a typical application process, aspiring scholars are required to create an introductory video and are interviewed by the selection committee.

In addition to their regular classes, first-year scholars meet regularly for professional development seminars. Topics have included Gallup’s CliftonStrengths, education resumes, diversity, mental health and well-being, leadership, conflict resolution and presentation skills.

Community service or service learning is also central to the academy and helps scholars further develop the skills they are learning. Scholars have helped a variety of community organizations, doing everything from promoting literacy, mentoring at-risk youth and reducing the misuse of prescription drugs to supporting musicians with special needs. Their work in local schools has included crafting customized, at-home activities for struggling distance-learning grade-school students.

For early childhood education major Kylie Miller, who chose UNK after falling in love with the small campus community, her service learning opportunity added to her education in more ways than one.

“Our spring semester requires 20 hours of service learning, but it kind of doesn’t feel like service learning at all, especially because we get to work with kids,” Miller said with a big smile. Miller volunteered as a tutor with the America Reads program, and that’s where she realized she wanted to teach English as a second language. She said, “I was able to work within an ESL classroom, and I absolutely fell in love with it.”

CHALLENGE: Keeping new teachers in the classroom, especially during those first years that are typically the most difficult.

STRATEGY: Academy scholars graduate with not only a strong education but also a strong support network. The academy creates close-knit cohorts of students who attend seminars and some classes together and come together for community service and team-building activities.

A dedicated coordinator on each campus pulls it all together, serving as mentor, facilitator and organizer, connecting scholars with schools, professional opportunities and each other. At UNL, academy students share the same dorm floor for the first year.

Wilton, Espinoza and Miller all emphasized the value of the strong community within the academy. Their cohort is where they’ve found their closest friends, even their roommates in Miller’s case. It’s where they go for encouragement and studying help. They know they can rely on those bonds after they graduate.

“I can definitely see that we’ll all be standing strong together within the teaching community after we graduate, because we all have one another,” said Miller. “It’s just a great community of support,” Espinoza said. “It feels like a family.”

The Teacher Scholars Academy started in the fall of 2019 and added its second cohort fall of 2020. In terms of the big picture, its founders won’t know if it works for another 10 years, when academy graduates are in their classrooms, and they are able to see if their success, including their retention in the field, is greater than their peers. Big problems don’t always have quick fixes.

“It’s big and broad, but you’ve got to take steps, right?” Scott said. “You can’t be intimidated by the magnitude of the problem.”

Scott said the William & Ruth Scott Foundation chose to invest in the Teacher Scholars Academy because of a core belief in the value of education.

He quoted his mother, Ruth Scott — a former teacher — as saying, “Being a good teacher and a good parent are two of the most important professions on the planet. Impacting the lives of children brings an indescribable sense of fulfillment.”

Scott said that his family’s work with the academy has been “as satisfying as anything we’ve ever done.”  He added, “We’ve gotten the same feedback from our peers in the community who have joined us in this investment.”

Wilton also sees the donors’ gifts as investments for which he and his peers are truly grateful.

“I see the donors’ investment in me and in future educators as truly not just an investment in me. It’s an investment in every student who will walk into my classroom, someday in the future,” Wilton said.

Wilton noted that this investment is multiplied by all of the academy’s scholars on all three campuses and all of the students they will teach throughout their careers, leading to an impact that is hard to count or even put into words.

“When we are able to positively impact one student,” he said, “they’re going to positively impact their family and their peers and the other people around them whom we might not be able to teach. And I’m really thankful for the donors for the experience from the Teacher Scholars Academy, and, for some of us, the gift to make college a reality, and to be able to go on and make the difference that we want to make.”

by Robyn Murray

The first days on a college campus can be intimidating. For freshman students, the web of buildings can seem impossible to navigate. Their professors can seem daunting, their peers unwelcoming. And if those new students find no one who looks or sounds like them, intimidating can turn to overwhelming.

That matters.

It means when something happens to push them off track — a messed-up assignment or flunked test, a harsh assessment from a professor or tardy write-up, they might ask themselves: Do I belong here? Can I succeed? Or should I quit and go home where I can be myself?

That’s what it felt like for Fernando Wisniewski-Pena.

A first-generation American, Wisniewski-Pena is also a first-generation college student. His parents grew up in Mexico and knew little about how to prepare him for college life in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I really didn’t know the expectations of asking for help,” he said. “Not knowing exactly who to talk to or how often to talk … I didn’t know if I was being too overbearing or if I was being too needy.”

Wisniewski-Pena struggled with his classes and was put on academic probation in his first year. That’s when he really began to wonder if he was in the right place.

“I think everybody has had that epiphany moment of, like, do I belong here?” he said. “I know how it feels personally to question my existence here at the university.”

Students who feel like they don’t belong on campus have a much higher chance of dropping out. According to a 2017 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Black and Hispanic students graduate at rates significantly lower than white and Asian students.

But the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has a strong record of closing that gap. In 2015, a report by The Education Trust ranked UNL first among the nation’s public colleges and universities in improving graduation rates for underrepresented students.

Some of that credit belongs to a 30,000-square-foot building — complete with large windows and sweeping views of campus, comfortable reading spaces and a welcome-all atmosphere: the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center.

Ten years ago, the Gaughan, as it’s known, was built to provide a welcoming place for students who don’t fit the default demographic on campus. It was named in honor of Jackie Gaughan, a colorful casino magnate who believed things work better — businesses, communities and society at large — when everyone has a voice at the table.

As the Gaughan celebrates its 10-year anniversary, students and faculty are reflecting on what has changed in the decade since its opening — and what has not. For many, the challenges faced by minority and underrepresented students feel like they’re stuck on repeat. And 2020 returned them all to the fore.

While the work is far from done, at the Gaughan, students feel like it’s possible. They feel at home — welcomed, seen, respected and championed. They feel hopeful that real change will come.

As it stands, attached to the beating heart of campus, the Nebraska Union, the Gaughan is one of the largest multicultural centers on a U.S. university campus. With spaces like the Kawasaki Reading Room, where students can learn about Japanese history and art, as well as massage chairs and reading nooks, the Gaughan is a place for students to study, unwind and gather.

It is also home to more than a dozen student organizations, such as the UNL Disability Club, Afrikan People’s Union and the Muslim Student Association.

“We have wonderful spaces where we can offer tutoring and assistance academically, so students can find their way and be successful,” said the center’s director, Charlie Foster. Foster is also the assistant vice chancellor for inclusive student excellence and director of the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services.

“We work hard to make them feel comfortable, make them feel like they belong on campus, that they can be successful here,” Foster said.

When Wisniewski-Pena was struggling with his classes, he was connected to an adviser at the Gaughan, and the relationship he developed made all the difference.

“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have graduated,” he said, calling the Gaughan his “home away from home.”

“Just knowing that these individuals knew where I was coming from,” he said, “I had more than just an academic connection; I had a personal connection.”

Unyoh Mbilain had a similar experience. A first-generation American, Mbilain is a political science and global studies major on a pre-law track. Her parents immigrated from Cameroon, and she says the Gaughan staff have become like family.

“Miss Charlie … she’s like our mom away from home,” Mbilain said. “She’s always checking up on us.”

Mbilain attended a competitive private school and her parents went to college, so she didn’t feel lost on campus. But she did feel alone at times as one of the few Black faces in class.

“I know I wouldn’t have been at UNL for that long if … I didn’t have the Gaughan to blow off steam,” she said. “It’s important to have a place that represents you … it’s definitely part of my well-being.”

Foster says the Gaughan welcomes students from every walk of life — big cities, small towns, Nebraska natives or foreign — and understands diversity encompasses much more than skin tone.

“Suggesting that multiculturalism is only about black and brown faces, that’s an error,” she said. “We’re supposed to be learning about everybody and learning what richness we all bring to the table.”

Inclusive Student Excellence

In 2020, UNL released a strategic plan that laid out a 25-year objective. The goals include enhancing research and creative activity, preparing students to be lifelong learners and broadening Nebraska’s engagement in community, industry and global partnerships. For every goal, one principle is woven in: Create an institution where “every person and every interaction matters.”

It’s a worthy concept, but it also points to an uncomfortable truth.

“The fact that we have to explicitly say that means that maybe up to this point not everybody has felt that they mattered or that they belonged,” said Tyre McDowell Jr., assistant vice chancellor for student affairs.

McDowell oversees various student organizations on campus and says his mission is to “create a community where everybody can be their fully authentic self.” Only when students, faculty and staff feel they can truly be themselves do they reach their full potential, he said, and only then does the university get the best from its greatest resource.

McDowell said as the populations served by universities changed, tensions inevitably resulted. How people from diverse backgrounds are perceived or acknowledged on campus or represented within the curriculum needed to be addressed.

“What changes do we need to make, structurally or culturally, to make the college experience at the University of Nebraska one that everybody feels like they’re acknowledged and that they truly matter and belong?” McDowell said. “You can’t wish it away. You can’t write it away. There are things you have to do, and it’s challenging, difficult work.”

McDowell says that work is about confronting a system so that barriers are no longer in place. For example, colleges were not designed for students who are the first in their families to attend university.

“I was a first-generation college student,” McDowell said. “I can tell you, my kids have a distinct advantage having had a parent who’s navigated the college system.”

Colleges were also not designed for students who don’t have money at home. Tuition and textbooks are expensive, and many students work to pay rent while they’re at school. That means they don’t get to participate in research projects or unpaid internships that can make them more attractive to employers when they graduate.

Curriculum and representation are also challenges.

“A student could come to the University of Nebraska, and if they’re a Black student, never having been in the classroom with the person instructing the class looking like them,” McDowell said. “It’s difficult to understand unless you’ve had to navigate that.”

The university’s plan has another stated goal: Create a climate that emphasizes, prioritizes and expands inclusive excellence and diversity. One step forward on that path was welcoming the inaugural vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion to the university, Marco Barker, Ph.D., in 2019. In an email, Barker said the creation of his position symbolized the work of inclusion and diversity as an important campus goal.

“However, the creation of this role acknowledges that diversity as a priority was not understood as a priority by all,” he said. “There is an opportunity and need for our faculty, staff and students to see themselves as part of our inclusive excellence mission and play a role in making diversity, inclusion and equity — including racial equity — a core component of the UNL experience.”

Foster said part of the work is simple: Do a better job of being good to each other.

“That’s what inclusive student excellence is,” she said. “It’s the reason why we do the work that we do. So everybody has a shot at having a great education. And the only way to do that is to do that together.”

Old Lessons, Relearned

While 2020 was one of the most difficult years for many in recent memory, it also moved the nation forward on some critical issues. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer brought people of every background to the streets with a unified voice — Black lives matter. No more, but no less. More Americans participated in BLM protests than any other in U.S. history.

As Nebraska students joined in, the Gaughan stood behind them.

“We sought to support all of them,” Foster said. “We were there, because our students were there.”

But while the magnitude of the protests was unprecedented, the conversations and concerns were not new. Foster said 2020 looked a lot like 1968.

“We should be really intentional about learning our history, as a country, as a state,” she said. “If we’re smart now, we won’t have to relive it all over again. We don’t have to keep doing this.”

McDowell said the events of 2020 pushed NU to confront issues like race and racism in a way it has not had to in some time.

“The University of Nebraska doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “We know that racism exists on the University of Nebraska campus, because we know that racism exists in the society at large. We are a microcosm.”

McDowell said the protests provided an opportunity to have an honest conversation about race and racism in ways that could lead to long-term, systemic changes. But he worries students will get burned out if those changes don’t happen soon.

“Hopefully, the students who are advocating for change don’t grow weary of pushing,” McDowell said. “It can be tiresome … but we need them to keep the pressure on.”

Wisniewski-Pena is one of those students who is pushing for change. He sits on the diversity and inclusion committee in student government and works to ensure students like him feel included. It’s a stop on the path to his goal of practicing international law and working in foreign affairs. It is a destination he is one step closer to as a proud college graduate — thanks to the Gaughan and his own determination.

“I was stubborn,” he said. “Even though there is not a big space for me here, I’m going to make it my space, you know, I’m going to find my community.

“I don’t know where I would be if I had dropped out. I don’t have a backup plan.”

by Tom O’Connor

With a massive flood in 2019 and a serious drought in 2020, Nebraska knows only too well the water extremes that can occur and the havoc they can produce.

For Jesse Bell, Ph.D., it makes Nebraska the perfect place for him to conduct his work as director of the newly established Water, Climate and Health Program based in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

The program brings together experts from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska. It was created in 2020, thanks to a $5 million gift commitment made by UNMC alumna Anne Hubbard, M.D., through her family’s foundation, the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation.

For Jesse Bell, Ph.D., Nebraska is the perfect place for him to conduct his work as director of the newly established Water, Climate and Health Program based in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

Bell grew up in the tiny community of Bloomfield in northeast Nebraska.

He loved to fish and hunt and be out in nature.

When UNMC recruited him for an associate professor role in 2018, one of his colleagues said, “You could go to a lot of places. Why Nebraska?”

The answer was easy, said Bell, who was lured back to the Cornhusker state from Atlanta, where he created the first joint research position between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I loved growing up in Nebraska,” he said. “I knew the state, and I felt there was tremendous potential for future work — a better chance that we could move the meter a little more to produce improved health outcomes.”

When it comes to flooding, Bell said most people think of coastal states as having the biggest problem. Amazingly, with its large number of rivers and waterways, Nebraska ranks as the sixth most flood-prone state in the country.

“The 2019 flood was devastating to Nebraska,” Bell said. “It resulted in three deaths, and the $10.8 billion economic loss made it the costliest inland flooding event in U.S. history.

“We saw the full spectrum of flooding — the damage caused by rushing water, contaminants, bacteria and ag chemicals in the water, debris you can’t see, animals trying to escape. Once the waters receded, we saw the problems afterwards, such as mold in houses and mental health issues due to lost crops and livestock.”

With 92% of Nebraska’s land dedicated to agriculture, it’s no surprise that high nitrate concentrations can be found in groundwater across the state. Nitrates, which have been linked to potentially serious health issues in babies, originate primarily from fertilizers, septic systems and manure storage or spreading operations.

In addition, other elements found in Nebraska’s water can impact health. These include arsenic, lead, uranium, agricultural chemicals and herbicides such as atrazine.

Bell said 80% of Nebraska’s water comes from community public water systems, while the remaining 20% comes from private domestic wells.

Climate change is another area of concern in Nebraska, Bell said.

“Over the past 50 years, Nebraska’s temperatures and precipitation have increased,” he said. “Scientists expect this trend to continue in the future, which will translate to winters being wetter and summers being drier.”

By partnering with DWFI, the Water, Climate and Health Program will be able to enhance its effectiveness, he said.

Peter G. McCornick, Ph.D., executive director of DWFI, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, agrees.

“This is a strategically important alliance for our institute and the UNMC College of Public Health,” McCornick said. “It will enable us to better research the complex issues impacting water quality and develop solutions for improved public and environmental health. We’re very pleased to welcome Dr. Bell to the DWFI leadership team.”

The Water, Climate and Health program will work in three main capacities:

Research topics the program could address include the following:

“The hope is to build an interdisciplinary program across the university that will thrive for decades to come,” Bell said. “We have plenty of work to do. We will focus on Nebraska first, then the region, and then everything outside the region. I’m excited about this. I think there will be a lot of good that will come out of this.”

Looking out for Mother Nature

Hubbard has had a love affair with nature since she was in her mid-20s.

When she was looking to make a significant investment in the University of Nebraska, it was very obvious to her that the best use of the money would be to address Nebraska’s most pressing public health issues associated with water and climate.

“Nature is so important. It calms you down … relieves mental stress. I love getting out and moving around,” said Hubbard, a 1977 graduate of the UNMC College of Medicine and member of the University of Nebraska Foundation Board of Directors. “I know there is a God when I’m outside.

“We need a healthy environment. Life is circular. All of us are connected. If we have unhealthy water or soil, it affects everyone — humans, plants and animals. We have to look out for Mother Nature, because she’s trying to look out for us.”

In addition to establishing the Water, Climate and Health program, her gift commitment created the Claire M. Hubbard Professorship of Water, Climate and Health that Bell will hold, pending approval by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

A pediatric radiologist, Hubbard worked in children’s hospitals in Kansas City and Philadelphia for 21 years before joining UNMC and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in 2005. She retired in 2015.

Her gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation helps meet a critical need in public health.

“The idea behind public health is to prevent disease instead of just treat it,” Hubbard said. “It is so obvious to me how much impact environment has on human health.

“Water is life. The goal is for everyone to have safe, clean water available. It’s exciting to see the University of Nebraska come together to try to make this happen.”

Visit to learn more about Hubbard’s reasons for supporting the study of water, climate and health.

by Kristin Howard

Sarah Collins, a sophomore from Omaha, knew she wanted to be a teacher long before choosing the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

She expected a standard arc of education classes to prepare her with method and theory, then a semester of student teaching to get real-world experience to launch her career in the classroom. Instead, she began working with students almost right away with a job at the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center at UNK.

Collins is delighted with the change of plans.

“This job has been such a light in my life, and applying here was truly the best decision I have made as a college student thus far,” she said.

The Plambeck Center opened in November 2019 in University Village, a mixed-use, urban-village development that’s located just south of UNK’s main campus. The center provides developmentally appropriate early education for up to 176 children from infant to 6-year-olds, including those with special needs. It features 11 classrooms dedicated to three research-based philosophies for early childhood education.

“This hands-on experience has cemented my desire to pursue my career in education,” said Collins. “Working with kids of all ages has broadened my developmental experience. Interactions with the parents have improved my professionalism.”

The Plambeck Center’s facility also serves as a lab where students from UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center prepare for their future careers through experiential learning activities, such as classroom observations, practicums, internships, student teaching, diagnostic testing and research.

Interim Director Chelsea Bartling manages the center’s day-to-day operations, collaborating with various campus departments and community organizations on learning, child development and research initiatives.

“At the Plambeck Center we encourage our college students to come and learn through interactions with the children and teachers here at the center,” Bartling said. “Hands-on experiences with early childhood students provide our future educators a valuable learning experience that tandems the university teaching. It puts the practices learned into play and helps to guide our future educators in their teaching journey.”

Collins said the learning is constant, and UNK and UNMC students are included in many aspects of the center.

“I was recently promoted to teacher’s assistant and have been involved in lesson planning and have had experience being the lead instructor when the lead teacher is not in the room,” she said.

In addition to serving Kearney-area families, the Plambeck Center addresses a statewide need for developing early childhood educators in a hands-on setting that exposes them to the best teaching methods.

“We know there’s a severe shortage of high-quality early childhood education providers,” said Bartling. “That’s been a big issue, especially for rural Nebraska. It is important for our future educators to continue their educational journey, as students still need highly qualified teachers to teach even amongst the teaching challenges that our society is currently facing.”

It’s a workforce need and a community need, she said, noting that childcare and early education are among the top priorities for employees and businesses looking to move into a community.

“As individuals come to town, child care is one of the first things they look for. We as a center and business need to be ready to help support families,” said Bartling.

Kearney residents and UNK graduates Jennifer and Chuck Rowling recognize the advantages of the Plambeck Center’s educational approach.

“Our family has been fortunate to have all three of our children attend the Plambeck Center,” said Jennifer Rowling. “The excellent teachers and students who work with the children daily are the true heart of the center and do an amazing job providing the early childhood education that sets these children apart from their peers. Learning through play and exploration is so important for children, and the center has figured out how to incorporate fun and learning daily.

“The Plambeck Center is a perfect example of … why the quality of the teachers and staff makes all the difference.”

The center’s role in educating early childhood teachers and other professionals is expected to address a growing need across Nebraska.

Through 2026, the Nebraska Department of Labor projects that there will be an average of almost 2,300 job openings for child care workers each year and a cumulative 12% expansion of total employment in this occupation between 2016 and 2026.

Preschool teaching alone is expected to have more than 100 openings per year and a 9% total employment growth during this decade.

The Nebraska Department of Education conducts its annual Teacher Vacancy Survey in PK-12 schools each fall. Its 2019 survey showed early childhood education sitting 10th among 15 endorsements with a shortage of educators — the fifth straight year it has been identified as a shortage area.

UNK’s Early Childhood Inclusive Teaching Field Endorsement Degree program, which is among the largest in the state with more than 250 students, is playing a key role in building this skilled workforce. Students at the Plambeck Center are also being trained for all different types of classrooms. In January, the center opened its Montessori Early Childhood classroom, which will enable more teachers to complete credentials in Montessori and support LaVonne Plambeck’s complete vision.

Mark Reid, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education, who took the reins as dean in 2020, reflected on the impact Plambeck’s passion for education has had at UNK.

“Many thanks go out to Dr. LaVonne Plambeck, for whom the center is named,” Reid said. “Her enthusiasm and generosity were imperative for this aesthetically and functionally beautiful facility to become a reality. In addition to the traditional classrooms, one of the spaces has been fully outfitted for Montessori teaching, for which Dr. Plambeck has an international reputation. At UNK, we are always looking for and improving the best and effective ways to prepare our teachers.”

Bartling said, “As a graduate from the Early Childhood Inclusive Endorsement program at UNK, I feel that the program and those hands-on experiences of the university child care center played a huge role in where I am as an administrator and former preschool teacher/special educator.”

Bartling’s UNK teaching and administration experience has come full circle. Collins is at the beginning of her journey but loves what her future may hold.

“One day, when I was working with the pre-K students, I spent the last half hour of the day working directly with a few of them on writing the alphabet. They were so excited about learning and displaying their knowledge, and it really made an impact on me,” said Collins. “That spark in their eyes — that’s what all of this is about. This moment painted a picture of what my future will be like.”

by Ed Rider

He thought he would never practice medicine again.

The stigma associated with seven years of alcohol and opioids misuse — being labeled an addict — affected his medical license and his practice. With no job and few prospects, he returned to school in hopes of pursuing a career as an alcohol and drug therapist.

Fate had another plan.

When Kenneth Zoucha, M.D., looked to shadow therapists at a youth treatment program, he found an opportunity to continue working as a pediatrician in an environment where he could draw upon his own experiences with addiction and recovery.

“My journey to recovery gave me empathy for patients, because when they talk about how painful withdrawal is, I get it,” Zoucha said. “These are sick people who need help to get well, not bad people we need to make good.”

His path also led him to better understand how the stigma of addiction hinders people from getting the help they desperately need.

Zoucha, now assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the addiction medicine division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Psychiatry, applauds the psychosocial interventions and therapies that have helped many people with use disorders. However, he believes education on the neurobiological disease behind addiction is key to more successful recoveries.

“Substance use disorder is a disease that needs to be treated medically, like we treat patients with diabetes,” he said. “The more we can talk about addiction as something that can be treated at your doctor’s office with the aid of expertly trained therapists, the less stigma there will be surrounding it.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 35% of drug overdose deaths in Nebraska involved opioids. Alcohol, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, kills more than 300 Nebraskans each year. More than 37% of vehicle fatalities were due to alcohol impairment.

The same survey estimates that up to 7,000 people in Nebraska are living with a substance use disorder. Only about 10% will get the medical help they need.

With just eight physicians who are board certified in addiction medicine in the state (all located in the Omaha metropolitan area) and 178 physicians who obtained the waiver to prescribe buprenorphine (a narcotic prescribed for addiction to pain relievers), the need for more providers is urgent.

UNMC, Nebraska Medicine and the state have joined forces in a public-private partnership to develop training programs that will educate more physicians to treat patients with addictions. Development of two addiction fellowship programs as well as Pain and Substance Use Disorder Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (ECHO) were kick-started through private support and assisted by a subaward of the State Opioid Response grant from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Howard Liu, M.D., MBA, chair of the UNMC Department of Psychiatry, recruited Zoucha from his position overseeing the juvenile chemical dependency unit at the Hastings Regional Center to initiate the Addiction Medicine Fellowship program (accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education) and the executive fellowship program. It is the first fellowship program of its kind in the state.

“Few physicians in Nebraska know how to treat patients with addiction,” Liu said. “Our fellowship programs allow doctors to become experts in caring for patients with a substance use disorder. By lowering the stigma, medical professionals are more likely to see addiction as something they can treat.”

Addiction medicine fellowships are one-year multispecialty training programs for anyone who has completed a residency in the United States. Training provides a deep dive into providing care for people with unhealthy substance use, substance use disorders and other addictive disorders. The fellowship provides experience in the prevention, clinical evaluation, treatment and long-term monitoring of substance-related disorders.

Demand has been high for UNMC’s 30-day addiction medicine executive fellowship program for physicians, physician assistants and advanced practice nurses. Through a combination of clinical inpatient and outpatient treatment experiences, practicing providers learn how to evaluate and manage patients with substance use disorders.

In-person and web-based training helps executive fellows gain core skills for addiction treatment.

The program has graduated 35 fellows since its inception two years ago.

Growing the number of medical professionals who can treat patients with a substance use disorder is assisted by fellows applying these new skills to their practices and educating their partners. Giving providers the skills, knowledge and confidence to be the experts in their communities allows them to teach those skills to others.

ECHO uses videoconferencing to connect a variety of addiction specialists with providers across the state to discuss cases related to substance use disorders. Online sessions consist of a brief educational presentation followed by a clinical case discussion from a provider. Recommendations for treatment are also discussed.

“This amazing opportunity wouldn’t have happened had I not gone through my recovery journey,” Zoucha said. “Anyone can get substance use disorder, regardless of your status in society … it’s a medical disease.

“It also shows that people can get well.”

by Robyn Murray

It began on a clear morning in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh demolished a federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people.

For the nation, it was a watershed moment — the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in U.S. history. But for the residents of Oklahoma City, it was woven into the fabric of their identities.

Gina Ligon, Ph.D., grew up in Oklahoma City. She was 16 when she toured the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. She remembers the smell of the thick, muggy air, which was still acrid five days after the building was blown apart, and how indiscriminate it felt.

Gina Ligon, Ph.D., grew up in Oklahoma City. She was 16 when she toured the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

“They were just doing normal things,” she said. “They were cogs in the machine of this ideological hatred that he had.”

That day changed Ligon. It made her want to find the next McVeigh, the terrorists lurking among us — and stop them.

Today she is doing exactly that. Ligon is the head of NCITE — the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology and Education Center, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. NCITE is dedicated to understanding, tracking and stopping domestic terrorists. It is a one-of-a-kind institution based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and it just earned UNO the largest grant in its history: $36.5 million awarded by DHS.

The grant lasts 10 years, but Ligon is already planning beyond that.

“This is an opportunity to build something that Nebraska can be known for,” she said.

On a recent Zoom call, NCITE students scroll through charts and graphs, tweaking variables and inputting data to make the lines bend and curve.

A little blue dot pops up on a map, corresponding with phone data and pinged locations.

It’s mesmerizing, and the students are excited about the software behind it. But they also understand the gravity of what they’re looking at.

That little blue dot is a potential terrorist.

“I’ve never been exposed to data in that way before,” said Liz Bender, a UNO junior majoring in criminology and criminal justice. “You read about it, but I never really thought I could have access to some of that data.”

Data is what drives NCITE. It began with the Jack & Stephanie Koraleski Commerce and Applied Behavioral Laboratory (CAB Lab).

Ligon pitched the idea to the former dean of the College of Business Administration, Louis Pol, Ph.D., in 2013. The proposal: high-tech tools capable of analyzing people’s emotions by tracking facial expressions, eye movement, brain activity and other neurophysiological responses. Her team would then apply that data to a broad range of subjects and answer questions like: What kind of business leaders are most effective, and how do terrorists recruit new members?

Terrorism and business may seem unusual bedfellows, but Pol said the CAB Lab’s business perspective was key to winning over DHS.

“From the very get-go,” Pol said, “when [Ligon] was applying those business perspectives to this study of violent extremist groups, they said, ‘Holy cow, this is different. We need to pay attention to this, and we need to pay attention to this person.’”

Along with its unique perspective, the program stood out because of its multidisciplinary nature — the College of Information Science and Technology is a key partner — and how much support it received from the university and community.

Ligon and her team pitched what would eventually become NCITE as part of a universitywide search for the next Big Ideas that would help UNO grow academically. The proposal led to increased funding at the university level and five new positions to support NCITE’s future growth.

Omaha philanthropists Jack and Stephanie Koraleski provided funding to launch the CAB Lab as well as a professorship, which Ligon holds. And a whole community stepped up to support the college’s new $17 million privately funded addition to Mammel Hall, which will house NCITE headquarters.

For students at NCITE, getting to solve real problems for DHS and helping stop terrorism are transformative opportunities. Bender says she learns something new every day and loves being encouraged to seek out her own projects.

“It’s not something I’ve experienced before,” she said. “It’s like the world is your oyster — do with it what you will.”

Bender said her interest in criminology stems from growing up in the era of school shootings.

“I wanted to understand why,” she said.

Tackling questions such as those is what makes NCITE a powerful experience for students, whom Ligon wants to mold into the nation’s best counterterrorism professionals ready to work in government, nonprofits or business.

“NCITE has given greater purpose to all of these students,” Ligon said, “so they can work together to solve something bigger than themselves.”

Something bigger — like stopping the next McVeigh before he, or she, has a chance to act.

The timing could not be more apt. As the U.S. struggles to recover from a global pandemic, a massive economic crisis and a highly divisive presidential election, risk factors for homegrown terrorism are extremely high.

“We have this boiling cauldron of risk factors that none of us really know what it’s going to lead to,” Ligon said. “There’s no more important time to have a DHS Center of Excellence than right now.”

by Robb Crouch

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) has recognized the University of Nebraska Foundation and its partners for program and event excellence.

Special events for the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, the Munroe-Meyer Institute, the College of Engineering and the Nebraska Medical Center won awards. An article about the university’s response to COVID-19 won for writing excellence.

Additionally, awards were won for excellence in employee and alumni communication, for creativity in communicating with scholarship donors during the pandemic, for magazine design and for branding work.

“We’re proud of our mission to grow relationships and resources that allow the University of Nebraska to change lives and save lives,” said the foundation’s President and CEO Brian Hastings. “The events and activities recognized by CASE shine a light not only on the good work of our employees but also on the great work we are privileged to do every day for the University of Nebraska.”

CASE is the global non-profit association dedicated to educational advancement—alumni relations, communications, development, marketing, and advancement services—who share the goal of championing education to transform lives and society. The awards were announced by CASE at the District VI–Mid-America conference. Here’s a highlight of the award-winning entries:

Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts Grand Opening Event
Huskers came together to celebrate the legacy of alumnus Johnny Carson and the generosity of the television legend’s foundation during a three-day celebration. Held before the pandemic, the events marked the grand opening of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at UNL. The center is the premier destination for creative, young pioneers who use technology to innovate, to solve human-scale problems, to entertain audiences and to tell breathtaking stories that stimulate, provoke and inspire. The celebration won a CASE Gold Award.

Munroe-Meyer Institute Redevelopment Kickoff Celebration Event
The Munroe-Meyer Institute which provides services for patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities is getting a new home. It’s made possible through redevelopment of a building at 6902 Pine Street in Omaha. Everything about its design takes into consideration those the university helps as the institute begins its second century of service. A pre-pandemic event to mark the start of construction and to thank contributors who made it possible won a CASE Silver Award.

The Front Lines: Nebraska’s Fight Against COVID-19
Long before the novel coronavirus, UNMC and Nebraska Medicine were international experts of highly infectious diseases. Understandably, they have been called on to help the government and health care organizations during the pandemic. An article for the NU Foundation’s Pride of Place magazine won a CASE Silver Award for describing Nebraska’s role in the ongoing fight of COVID-19.

College of Architecture Scholarships Celebration
The College of Architecture and NU Foundation typically partner on an annual event to thank contributors who make scholarships possible for the college’s students. Because of the pandemic this event was replaced with an interactive digital publication. It included video messages and more tailored to the college’s supporters, winning a CASE Bronze Award.

College of Engineering Beam Raising Celebration Event
The state’s only College of Engineering embarked on a three-phase plan focused on enhancing engineering education and meeting the future workforce demand for engineers. The college and NU Foundation partnered on an event to celebrate the public and private partnerships driving the future of the college by holding a beam raising event. It followed coronavirus safety protocols. The event was recognized by receiving a CASE Bronze Award.

Kaneko Towers Dedication Event
Philanthropists Bob and Polina Schlott made it possible for UNMC and the Nebraska Medical Center to create a new front door. Their gift fashioned the Medical Center Plaza as a new southern entrance to the campus at 42nd and Leavenworth streets in Omaha. It features 18 ceramic columnar sculptures created by Omaha artist Jun Kaneko. The sculptures are incorporated into a grove of mature trees. Benches line a walkway and provide visitors, employees and students the opportunity to seek calmness and beauty. An outdoor dedication event held before the pandemic won a CASE Bronze Award.

Other award-winning entries include the following:


Helping to improve the health of Nebraskans is behind a $1 million gift from CyncHealth to the University of Nebraska at Kearney College of Business and Technology.

The gift sets up a fund at the University of Nebraska Foundation for the Nebraska Healthcare Collaborative Chair of Population Health at UNK. The endowed fund will enable the university to recruit an expert in health care data analytics who can provide leadership, strategic planning and advocacy focused on population health, health care costs, patient experience and clinician wellness.

CyncHealth, also known as Nebraska Health Information Initiative, created a similar fund at Creighton University in Omaha.

Jaime Bland, president and CEO of CyncHealth, said: “The intent of these endowed chairs is to enhance brain gain to the state of Nebraska focused on improving population health through analysis of health care data in partnership with CyncHealth, which is home to the designated statewide health information exchange, prescription drug monitoring program, and social determinants of health platform, Unite Nebraska.”

CyncHealth is a nonprofit organization with a public and private governance model that includes health care providers, payers and the State of Nebraska. CyncHealth is the designated statewide Health Information Exchange designed to share clinical and administrative data among providers in Nebraska and neighboring states.

The support from CyncHealth for the endowed fund places UNK and the University of Nebraska system in “the middle of the health care improvement conversation,” said Tim Jares, dean of the UNK College of Business and Technology.

“Leveraging data to improve outcomes could hardly be a hotter topic than it is today – surely the COVID-19 pandemic has done more to illustrate the importance of data in our health care system than the general public ever thought,” Jares said. “The individual who holds this new chair will be an advocate and leader within the NU system to bring together scholars from various disciplines to bring innovative approaches, including machine learning, artificial intelligence and data visualization, to complex, challenging health care problems.

“At the campus and college level, the chair will provide data analytics expertise in health care but applied to other domains as well, at a time that data analytics is only becoming more important. Our college has already done a great deal of work in data analytics, and this chair will help take those efforts to a new level.”

The chair will lead UNK’s efforts to engage with faculty, staff and students across the University of Nebraska system and with its clinical partners involved in population health and health care research. The individual will also partner with CyncHealth to develop and support its research and scholarship efforts for population health.

The College of Business and Technology is now recruiting for the Nebraska Healthcare Collaborative Chair. 

About CyncHealth (NEHII is now CyncHealth)

CyncHealth’s mission is to bring trust and value to health information technology by creating solutions for moving health data forward. CyncHealth is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a public/private governance model that includes health care providers, payers, and the State of Nebraska. CyncHealth is the designated statewide Health Information Exchange designed to share clinical and administrative data among providers in Nebraska and neighboring states. CyncHealth’s purpose is to achieve health care transformation through community betterment collaboration while protecting the security and privacy of medical information. Follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

It took only 24 hours.

During that time, close to 4,000 gifts were received from people standing for every state of the country and from nine countries who took part in this year’s Glow Big Red – 24 Hours of Husker Giving. In all, they supplied an outpouring of $436,000 in charitable support for all areas of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

The support is culmination of the third annual event held from noon to noon on Feb. 17-18. The crowdfunding effort encouraged those who care about UNL’s service mission to Glow All In this year by contributing and sharing why they glow with pride for the university.

“I am overwhelmed by the great success of this year’s Glow Big Red,” UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said. “A huge thank you to all those who donated for their tremendous support of UNL.”

The event focused on a wide range of opportunities to support students through scholarships and programs. There were ways to support students in each college as well as to support the university’s many organizations and affiliates. Seventy campus-based student organizations and groups also participated.

“I am so impressed by the outpouring of support for students and student organizations through this year’s Glow Big Red,” said Laurie Bellows, vice chancellor for student affairs. “It’s absolutely inspirational. Thank you to each and every supporter for your kindness. There truly is no place like Nebraska!”

UNL’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management shared a video message on social media from Andy Zhang, a sophomore computer science major from Elkhorn, Nebraska, on his thanks to those who supported students.

“The Raikes School has given me the opportunity to grow, not just as a student but as a person, and I’ve met so many wonderful people here,” Zhang said. “I really can’t thank Raikes enough, and a big part of it was just knowing that my family and I could pay these bills. We’re so grateful for the financial scholarships that Raikes and UNL provide, and it wouldn’t be possible without you. I just wanted to thank you on behalf of all Raikes School students and my cohort for your generous donations during Glow Big Red.”

The event has garnered momentum and more philanthropic help for the university each year. Last year more than 2,300 gifts were made with more than $175,000 in support. This year a goal was set of 2,500 gifts, surpassed by almost 1,400 gifts.

Gifts during the event were made at where full results are available.

Largely driven by social media engagement, supporters used #GlowBigRed to share their personal stories and why the university matters to them. The hashtag also helps document the event.

Glow Big Red started in 2019 in recognition of the university’s 150th anniversary.

The University of Nebraska‒Lincoln invites its worldwide community to Glow All In for the 2021 Glow Big Red ― 24 Hours of Husker Giving. The annual event is Feb. 17–18, 2021, with information, kickoff video and giving options at

This year’s Glow Big Red will again harness the power of Nebraska’s students, alumni, friends, faculty and staff. It will show how this powerful network comes together to support UNL students, improve the educational experience and keep quality education accessible to all.

Here are the top three ways to get involved:

First, give. Make a gift of $5 or more during this 24-hour period and help the university reach its goal of 2,500 gifts.

Second, light it up. Light your room, apartment, home or business red to let your pride shine.

And third, share your story. Using social media, share your Nebraska story and why you’re celebrating. Share with #GlowBigRed.

Those who contribute $60 or more will receive a Nebraska scarf as a thank you. Scarfs will be mailed three to five weeks after the event.

Participants can make a gift toward Glow Big Red starting Jan. 19 through noon on Feb. 18 at

Last year was a Glowing success

This is the third year for Glow Big Red, which has become another honored Husker tradition. Last year’s Glow Big Red event encouraged alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends to come together and contribute more than $175,000 from 2,338 gifts. Gifts came from 49 U.S. states and three continents.

Glow All In on social media

Join Husker Nation from noon Feb. 17 to noon Feb. 18 for the annual Glow Big Red ― 24 Hours of Husker Giving at Help continue the excitement online by using #GlowBigRed. Follow along at these channels:




Glow Big Red FAQs

What is Glow Big Red ― 24 Hours of Husker Giving?
This special 24-hour event Feb. 17 and 18 marks the growing tradition of celebrating the University of Nebraska–Lincoln by encouraging those near and far, to:

First, give. Make a gift of $5 or more during this 24-hour period and help us reach our goal of 2,500 gifts.

Second, light it up. Light your room, apartment, home or business red to let your pride shine.

And third, share your story. Think of those who glowed so brightly to reveal the road ahead for you. Share your story of those who made a difference in your life using #GlowBigRed.

It’s Nebraska’s annual day of giving, fueled by Husker passion, social media and you. Take this opportunity to come together in support of our university with a gift to a university area that pulls at your heartstrings.

Is there a minimum gift amount?
Yes. The smallest gift amount is $5. We have credit card processing fees and administrative costs to cover, but we’ve kept it as low as we can so everyone can take part. Gifts of any amount make a difference and will be counted toward the 24 Hours of Husker Giving total.

Is my gift tax deductible?
Yes, all gifts to the University of Nebraska made through GiveGab and the University of Nebraska Foundation are tax deductible. Consult a tax professional and IRS laws for specific information about your tax situation.

Will my gift help students?
Your gift will most definitely help students — the how is up to you. You can choose to support student scholarships, the college you graduated from or one of the other areas we’ve highlighted as choices for 24 Hours of Husker Giving. It’s your call. All contributions will expand opportunities for students and create an even better Husker student experience.

Can I take part even though I didn’t graduate from UNL?
Yes, you may, and please do. Parents, community members, friends and fans are all encouraged to support Nebraska during 24 Hours of Husker Giving. The gifts from many will be combined to advance the Nebraska experience for every student on campus and the university’s impact across the state and world.

What if I’ve already made a gift to UNL this year?
Thank you for your gift! Another gift will help us reach the goal for 24 Hours of Giving, and we encourage you to take part in Glow Big Red in other ways, too. Share your story online using #GlowBigRed.

How do the challenges work during the giving day?
We think a little competition makes things more fun. You might have your gift matched or even earn bonus money for your area of interest. Keep an eye on the Leaderboards page at for a complete list of challenges, rules and winners.

Can I make a gift by mail?
Yes. We encourage you to support the University of Nebraska–Lincoln by mail at any time, but the gift must be received by Feb. 5 if it’s for the 24 Hours of Husker Giving. Please let us know what fund it’s for and how you want it to help the university.

What is GiveGab?
GiveGab is the online giving platform that we’re using to facilitate the giving day. It helps nonprofits raise gifts and engage contributors, allowing organizations to function in a more streamlined manner. The University of Nebraska Foundation has chosen GiveGab to facilitate Glow Big Red and its 24 Hours of Husker Giving.

Is it safe to make a gift online?
Yes. Online gifts made through GiveGab are safe and secure. GiveGab will not receive your credit card information, and your information will never be shared or sold to a third party.

Whom do I contact if I have a question?
We’re here to help! Please start with Kristen Rock at or 402-730-0152.