Munroe-Meyer Institute celebrates new home and new standard of care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“This is a place where people’s hearts feel love,” said Timothy Shriver, chair of the Special Olympics, at the June 8 grand opening of the new Munroe-Meyer Institute building in Omaha.

The new home for the Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI) is now the country’s most advanced and state-of-the-art facility dedicated to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

The building “is a dream literally come true,” said MMI Director Karoly Mirnics.  

“With this new building, MMI is positioned as never before to support the intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) community as it strives for awareness, acceptance and opportunity,” Mirnics said. “This building will fuel a palpable change in the IDD community and in the broader community as we work together toward those goals.” 

“We created a unique building, the most advanced facility for those families impacted by IDD in the nation,” Mirnics said. “We wanted to create a new standard in IDD care for families, and we turned to these families – experts in their own right – to discover what they wanted that facility to be.” 

VIDEO: Watch the grand opening event featuring family testimonies and remarks by Special Olympics Chair Timothy Shriver, Seattle Seahawks Manager John Schneider and others.

UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold called the new building a doorway into the institute’s second century. 

“Since its beginning in 1919, Munroe-Meyer Institute has worked to improve the lives of the people and families it serves,” Gold said. “This new home gives it a much larger space and increased versatility and flexibility, but the core of the MMI mission — partnering with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to overcome challenges, to live fuller, richer lives — remains the same. We are forever grateful to all of the private philanthropists from our community who have invested in this world-class facility and the MMI mission.”

PHOTOS: See photos from the grand opening event

Costs for the building initiative were more than $90 million with funding provided through the state of Nebraska and private gifts to the University of Nebraska Foundation.  

“Due in large part to the philanthropic generosity of those who saw the need and value, many families will benefit from the excellent care and expanded services now possible through the Munroe-Meyer Institute in its new home,” said Brian Hastings, president and CEO of the University of Nebraska Foundation. “Thank you to our benefactors for the dream they’ve made possible and to the faculty, staff and providers for delivering this life-changing care to our families.” 

Major contributors to the building initiative include the following: 

Now located at 6902 Pine Street in Omaha near the University of Nebraska at Omaha Scott Campus, the new building is more than double the size of MMI’s former home. It provides critical room for growth of existing programs and the development of innovative new ones, ample parking, entrances and a floor plan designed to accommodate the needs of the individuals MMI serves. 

Susan Gass said her son Kaleb takes advantage of all that MMI offers and that Omaha is fortunate to have the university and the help it provides.

“MMI partners with our families to allow us to dream big for our kids,” Gass said. “It provides opportunities for our kids to help them achieve their potential at home, at school and within our community. The staff in this facility are truly amazing. They are the reason that Kaleb wants to be here for every opportunity.”

Although MMI now has a wonderful facility, it’s what takes place inside it that really maters.

“What is most important is what the building will allow us to provide: the best, most comprehensive, most integrated family-centric care for IDD in the world. And we will be doing that … for decades to come,” Mirnics said.

The University of Nebraska Foundation kicks off the celebration of its 85th year of service on June 3, 2021. It was on this date in 1936 that Nebraska citizens answered the plea of University of Nebraska Chancellor Edgar Burnett to help create a university greater than what the state alone could afford.

VIDEO: Brief History of the University of Nebraska Foundation

Today, as when it was founded, the University of Nebraska Foundation is focused on its mission to grow relationships and resources that enable the University of Nebraska to change lives and save lives.

Dorothy Thai is a recipient of the Edward J. Cornish Scholarship, the oldest existing scholarship at the University of Nebraska.

Dorothy Thai of Lincoln is one example of this mission in action. She holds the university’s longest-running scholarship, created by Edward J. Cornish in 1937. As a food science and technology major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, she looks forward to a career using her education and passion for cooking and baking.

Thai said the Cornish Scholarship and other private aid she’s received comes at a particularly important time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has added unplanned financial stress on her.

“If I could personally thank Edward Cornish, I would tell him, first of all, thank you for putting your time and money towards education for so many future students like me,” Thai said. “And secondly, thank you for entrusting your funds to a university that has the heart to look past the cultural and ethnic differences that continue to divide this world today. UNL has so much diversity that I am proud to be a part of. I am forever grateful for everyone who has made my education possible and that of so many others.”

It is Thai and others like her who make the foundation’s 85th anniversary so meaningful, said University of Nebraska Foundation President and CEO Brian Hastings.

“Our strength today, as at our founding, is due to our volunteers — our trustees and our board and committee members who freely give of their time — and our contributors who made scholarships possible for Dorothy Thai and thousands like her,” Hastings said. “Because of our volunteers and contributors, about $200 million is made available to the university and its affiliates every year.

“This generosity creates scholarships, helps recruit and retain top faculty, supports life-changing and transformational research and provides extraordinary medical care.”

Today, the University of Nebraska Foundation remains a top 20 fundraising organization among public universities and generates $6.53 in gifts for every dollar invested in its operations.

Just as Edward Cornish had foresight in creating an endowment to help future generations of students, Dorothy Thai is also thinking ahead about how she can express her gratitude for scholarship support while helping others.

“These scholarships mean so much to me and have inspired me to start my own scholarship fund sometime in the future,” she said.

It’s a known reality. Many students on university campuses across the country don’t have enough to eat and struggle to afford basic life necessities.

Some estimates show that about 1 in 3 college students experience food insecurity – and that was before the pandemic.

Give to Lincoln Day on May 25 is a giving day event that encourages people to contribute to Lincoln and Lancaster County nonprofit organizations.

Once again, the day comes at an especially important time, as the university supports those affected by the pandemic, including food-insecure students on campus now and those who will be returning this fall.

The Husker Pantry is a one-stop campus resource to help students with food, personal hygiene items and school supplies. The pantry relies on contributions to keep its shelves stocked.

• A gift of $20 provides a week’s worth of food for one student.

• A gift of $40 provides a week’s worth of food for two students.

• A gift of $60 provides a week’s worth of food for three students.

Contribute at

Every contribution during this event also increases the opportunity for the Husker Pantry to receive matching dollars made available by the event’s sponsors and benefactors.

By coming together and contributing any amount, we show our students, “We’ll all stick together in all kinds of weather for dear old Nebraska U.”

Give to Lincoln Day overview

Give to Lincoln Day is a giving day event that encourages you to contribute to Lincoln and Lancaster County nonprofit organizations now through May 25. Give to Lincoln Day is coordinated by Lincoln Community Foundation in partnership with local nonprofit organizations.

Every donation makes a bigger impact on Give to Lincoln Day, because nonprofits also get a proportional share of a $500,000 match fund made possible by the Lincoln Community Foundation and generous sponsors.

More is at

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) in Curtis announced the university has received the gift of 2,147 acres of ranchland in northeast Hayes County.

David Scholz and his late wife Sandra “Sande” Scholz made the gift valued at nearly $1.5 million through the University of Nebraska Foundation for education and research purposes.

“Through this extremely generous donation, David and Sande Scholz are giving NCTA students access to the kinds of hands-on, experiential education that is impossible to replicate in a classroom,” said Mike Boehm, NU vice president and UNL vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “This gift represents the ultimate laboratory for NCTA students, and their experience will be richer – and Nebraska’s agricultural workforce will be stronger – as a result.”

A portion of the gifted land was originally acquired by Frank B. and Mabel (Wray) Leu in 1902 through the Homestead Act. Over the years, the Leu family, including Frank B. Leu’s siblings, acquired adjacent land for cattle ranching and dryland farming.

Sande (Clark) Scholz, an alumna of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, was granddaughter to Frank and Mabel Leu and lived on the ranch for a time in her early childhood. She had good memories of time with her grandparents on the ranch even after moving to North Platte where she attended school. She inherited the Leu property through the estate of her mother, Grayce (Leu) Clark.

In honor and recognition of the Leu family’s pioneering spirit and longtime care of the land, the university will seek approval of its Board of Regents to name it the Frank B. and Mabel Leu Memorial Ranch.

“It was a special property to Sande because of her grandparents,” said David Scholz, an alumnus of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. “We discussed that using the land for educational purposes would be a way to honor her grandparents and the many others of that generation who settled in Western Nebraska — the ranchers who pioneered there and worked so hard.”

“On behalf of our campus community in Curtis and the surrounding region, we are excited to honor the wishes of David and Sande Scholz by preserving the Leu family’s ranching history as an outdoor learning laboratory emphasizing range management and beef cattle production,” said NCTA Dean Larry Gossen. “The educational opportunities this gift provides NCTA and our Aggie students are significant.”

Scholz said it’s rewarding to know the ranch will now be used as an educational facility to help students learn various aspects of ranching, including the care of cattle, keeping ranchlands, managing healthy and productive pastureland and more.

“Both Sande and I believe in education and particularly vocational education,” Scholz said. “And in talking with the university over the years, we discussed that a lot of young people who are interested in farming and ranching don’t necessarily come from this background, so they don’t have an opportunity to grow up and learn on a ranch or a farm. By enabling the university to have the ranch for use in their teaching curriculum, it gives students an opportunity to learn so many aspects of ranching.”

NCTA has plans in partnership with the University of Nebraska Foundation to raise funds for enhancements at the Frank B. and Mabel Leu Memorial Ranch. This could include a meeting facility for students, guests and faculty as well as improvements needed for the care of livestock animals.

About Frank B. and Mabel (Wray) Leu

Frank B. and Mabel (Wray) Leu were married in 1901 and first lived in Danbury, Nebraska. They were parents to three boys and two girls. Their daughter, Grayce (Leu) Clark, was the mother of Sande (Clark) Scholz.

The Leus valued education and made certain their children attended the Nebraska School of Agriculture in Curtis, which is now NCTA. Their children also went on to attend other schools of higher education in Nebraska, including the University of Nebraska.

Frank B. Leu was born in 1877 in Saunders County and died in North Platte, Nebraska, in 1975. Mable Leu was born in Culbertson, Nebraska, in 1881 and died in North Platte in 1957.

About David and Sande (Clark) Scholz

David and Sande Scholz met while attending the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Sande Scholz studied psychology and social work at UNL and graduated in 1963. David Scholz studied electrical engineering and graduated in 1964. The two then moved to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University where Sande Scholz received a Master of Social Work, and David Scholz received an MBA and Juris Doctorate.

The couple married in 1965 and moved to the Chicago area where they established their careers and raised their sons Brian and Daniel.

David Scholz enjoyed a longtime career with Commonwealth Edison, the electric power company serving Chicago and northern Illinois. Sande Scholz served as a social worker for various organizations, including the Institute for Juvenile Research and Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society. She later spent many years as a social worker with the River Forest, Illinois, school system. She died in 2019 at age 78.

About the University of Nebraska Foundation

The University of Nebraska Foundation grows relationships and resources that enable the university to change lives and save lives. It’s ranked among the top 25 public U.S. universities for its endowed assets of $1.7 billion. During the foundation’s last fiscal year, more than 53,000 people and organizations provided $320.4 million in gifts and commitments to aid the university and its affiliated organizations with 99 percent of assets restricted to a specific use. More is at

Support for human rights teaching and research programs at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is behind gifts of more than $1.2 million from Robert “Bob” Hitchcock and Melinda Kelly.

“Looking around the globe, Melinda and I see local, national and international human rights abuses, forced migration, genocide, gender-based violence and a global pandemic, which increases the burden on already troubled communities,” Hitchcock said. “This strengthens our desire to collaborate with UNL and its faculty and students to bring more attention to human rights issues and to work toward durable and long-lasting solutions.”

The couple has established the Hitchcock Family Chair in Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs as a permanently endowed fund with a $1 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The chair provides salary, teaching and research support for the director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Hitchcock is a former faculty member of Nebraska’s College of Arts and Sciences. He served in the Department of Anthropology for 23 years, including time as chair. He then became anthropology chair at Michigan State University and is currently at the University of New Mexico. Hitchcock and his wife, Melinda Kelly, share a passion for human rights and humanitarian issues. She works with faith-based organizations and the Kalahari Peoples Fund on issues involving indigenous people, refugees and immigrants in Africa and New Mexico. They reside in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“This is such a valuable investment by Bob and Melinda because it will further elevate the national standing of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Program and will ensure that we can recruit and retain the very best faculty to lead this vibrant interdisciplinary program for many years to come,” said Mark Button, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I have no doubt that the Hitchcock Family Chair will play a critical role in advancing the important aims of the program.”

Hitchcock and Kelly gave $200,000 to establish the Hitchcock Family Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Excellence Fund. This endowment provides broad support for the program including annual support for student research and academic travel, faculty research and travel, funding for guest lectures and more.

“Through their generosity, Bob and Melinda help place UNL among a select group of institutions that emphasizes human rights research and education,” said Courtney Hillebrecht, Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations, associate professor of political science and director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. “It’s a privilege and a responsibility to be part of this esteemed group of universities, and we are mindful of the trust they have placed in us to establish UNL as a leader in human rights.”

David Forsythe, emeritus professor of political science and founding director of the human rights program, said Hitchcock was deeply involved from its start in 1997. He added that Hitchcock and Melinda Kelly have been “enormously helpful” in keeping Nebraska’s program going — and growing.

“It is important that the next generation of leaders understands the importance of fundamental personal rights and the need for continuing efforts to protect them,” Forsythe said. “Human rights ideas and norms do not implement themselves. Moreover, they require constant adjustments to changing times and changing threats to human dignity.”

Hitchcock said that during his years in Lincoln he appreciated seeing the deep commitment of many Nebraskans to human rights, social justice and fair treatment of diverse people.

“UNL recognizes the value of supporting an interdisciplinary human rights program and works hard to make human rights a goal for the university,” he said.

Additionally, Hitchcock and Kelly created the John R. and Karleen Hitchcock Memorial Fund with a gift of $30,000 to commemorate the lives of Bob Hitchcock’s parents. The endowment provides broad support for students enrolled in the Department of Anthropology through undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, internships, student research, travel or other types of student aid.

Hitchcock and Kelly intend to use estate gift planning to provide additional contributions to the funds they have established.

“Bob and Melinda’s generosity is truly transformative for the College of Arts and Sciences,” Button said. “Their vision for the college is deeply consistent with ours, and we are extremely grateful to them.”

About John and Karleen Hitchcock

John “Jack” R. Hitchcock Jr. and Karleen Sleeper Hitchcock were both born in California in 1912. He was from Los Angeles, and she was from nearby Riverside.

Jack Hitchcock graduated from Stanford University in 1934 and worked for oil companies in California and Texas before joining the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. He served in the U.S. Marines from 1942 to 1946. Upon returning to ARAMCO, he became superintendent of oil production in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, and retired in 1964.

Karleen Sleeper graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1934. She served as administrative assistant to Alden Winship “Tom” Clausen, who was director and later head of the Bank of America before his appointment as president of the World Bank.

John and Karleen Hitchcock were married in 1948. After living in Saudi Arabia, the couple returned to southern California with their sons, Bob and Will. From there, they enjoyed traveling around the United States and internationally.

Karleen Hitchcock was deeply interested in women’s rights, education, and the promotion and protection of cultural heritage in the Middle East and United States. Throughout his life, Jack Hitchcock had strong interests in human rights, social justice and equitable treatment of all people. Karleen Hitchcock died in 1968, and John Hitchcock died in 2004.

About Robert Hitchcock and Melinda Kelly

As longtime partners, Bob Hitchcock and Melinda Kelly are passionate about human rights and humanitarian issues. They were married in 2019 and are parents to adult children.

Hitchcock received an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree and doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico.

He served as a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Nebraska from 1983 to 2006, also serving time as department chair. He then went on to serve as chair of anthropology at Michigan State University and as a member of the faculty in the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. He is currently a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

His research has focused on areas of cultural anthropology, international development, poverty alleviation, human rights and indigenous people, with a primary focus on sub-Saharan Africa. He has added experience with the Middle East, South Asia, North and South America and the Pacific. He has been called upon to be an adviser, board member, consultant and mediator for professional organizations, development projects, foundations and international agencies.

During his career at Nebraska, Hitchcock collaborated with Emeritus Professor David Forsythe to establish the university’s human rights and humanitarian affairs program. In recognition of the Forsythes’ charitable support, the university later named it the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

Melinda C. Kelly is a graduate of the University of Michigan. After moving to New Mexico, she became a member of a University of New Mexico group that received a National Science Foundation grant to work with Tshwa San in the Central District of Botswana in 1975 and 1976.  While there, she assisted in research, interviews, recording women’s activities, report writing, grant accounting and artifact documentation.

On returning to the U.S., she had a long career as a travel agent, traveling to six continents while maintaining a strong interest in Africa and the field of anthropology. In the past eight years, she has attended numerous anthropological and ecological conferences and has done ethnographic field work in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Her research has focused on human-wildlife interactions, ethnohistory and indigenous knowledge of plants, animals and insects. Currently she is working with faith-based organizations and the Kalahari Peoples Fund on issues involving indigenous people, refugees and immigrants in Africa and New Mexico.

Writer: Robb Crouch

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.

Kenneth Zoucha, M.D.

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.”