Why are you here?

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‘Why are you here?’

Academy bolsters promising students in an unfamiliar world.

A big, handsome envelope arrived at Alyssia Casillas’ home in Grand Island a decade ago. She was only about 14 at the time, so she was surprised it had her name on it.

With big eyes, she watched her mom open it. (“When you’re a kid,” Alyssia says, “your mom opens your mail.”) She watched her mom jump up and down in their living room with green-painted walls.

She heard her mom scream.

“You got it! You got it!”

Alyssia was a girl with intelligence and drive. She had good people in her life, like her mom – a single mother who worked hard to raise her three kids. But Alyssia’s lack of confidence had led her to make some bad choices. Friends were getting pregnant. She was hanging with a rough crowd.

So this big, handsome envelope in her mom’s hands, Alyssia knew, must contain some big news.

“I’m standing in front of my mom and I’m thinking, ‘I’m either in trouble or I did something really good.’”

Because the letter inside was also making her mom cry.


“Why are you here?”

That’s the question the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Deena Curtis poses to rows of fresh faces one day this past September in a classroom in Jorgensen Hall – this year’s freshman class of the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy (NCPA).

Deena, the NCPA’s diversity and community outreach counselor, is one of its teachers.

“Today, you’re going to write down why you’re here – why you are in college,” she says. “And it’s what you’re going to use every morning and read every morning to get you up. Then we’re going to pull it out at the end of this first semester and see if your why is the same, and at the end of the year, and every year. And we’re going to see how you’ve matured and thought differently about what is your why.”

These are promising students who’ve found themselves in an unfamiliar world of college. They’ve come here from low-income families. They will be the first in their families to get a college degree. College is scary for many of them, even with NCPA support. Without it, many wouldn’t have landed here in the first place.

NCPA actually began for them years before. The program, now in its 10th year, seeks promising eighth-graders who’ll be attending Grand Island Senior High or Omaha North High Magnet School and, over the years, prepares those kids for college – academically, socially and emotionally.

The students take advanced courses. They must keep at least a 3.25 GPA throughout high school. They are offered one-on-one tutoring. They are paired with UNL students, who become mentors and friends. They attend summer camps and seminars that help them build life and leadership skills.

They help one another. They bond.

And they become part of the NCPA family, whose nurturing network carries on through college at either the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College.

For students who do make it through the program’s high school requirements, NCPA then pays all of their college expenses – tuition, books, room and board and fees – and continues to support them with social events, retention plans and weekly seminars.

“You’re going to need a blank piece of paper,” Deena tells the freshmen. “This is your time to write down what is your why.

“Why are you here?”

My why is to get a college degree and use it to get a job that is for the benefit of humanity . . .

My why is not to be the best there is, but to be the best me that I can be . . .

My why is because there are so many like me who need me to stand up and tell them that they are not defined by their tragedies, and they will set the world aflame with their capabilities one day, just as I intend to do . . .

My why is because I deserve to accomplish my dreams, and my family deserves to see me do so. I will change the world someday . . .

NCPA is funded through grants and private gifts. It started at Grand Island Senior High in 2006. Two years later, it expanded to Omaha North High Magnet School.

Kay Clarke teaches English at Grand Island Senior High. Over the years, she’s watched NCPA students in her classes thrive and grow into great citizens.

One girl’s story stands out.

It was the story of a girl with intelligence and drive but also some chaos in her life. The English teacher watched as that girl rose to become an NCPA star, one who returns home to Grand Island to mentor kids like the one she used to be.

The student’s name?

Alyssia Casillas.

“The character traits that are stressed in the program – being respectful, responsible and committed – began to show in Alyssia’s participation in class,” Kay says. “She became more confident in her abilities, and I began to notice her leadership potential.

“Since then, she truly has blossomed into an outstanding young woman.”

Alyssia sits on a high stool at the Starbucks near City Campus, sipping a hot latte.

Why is she here? To tell her story.

“For me, NCPA was huge,” she says. “It helped me defy the odds.”

Alyssia graduated with a sociology degree from UNL in May 2015 and is now in her final year in UNMC’s dental hygiene program. She’s passionate about educating people on oral health. It’s not just cleaning teeth, she says. You can tell a lot about a person’s overall health by looking in their oral cavities.

Being a dental hygienist, she says, will help her help people.

She’s telling her story, she says, because she knows generous people might read it and see why it’s good to support NCPA and its students. She’s also telling her story because she wants to thank the people who’ve already helped the program grow and thrive and to thank her NCPA mentors, who, she says, “just really had our backs.”

“They made that college experience that might have been extremely scary and hard so much more exciting and comfortable and enjoyable for me.”

So why did her mom cry that day a decade ago?

Because that envelope with Alyssia’s name on it had come from NCPA.

Congratulations . . .

“It was crazy when I got it – four years, full ride. I was like, ‘What does that even mean?’”

She smiles.

“But my mom knew what it meant at the time, even if I didn’t.”

Student support is one of the priorities of the University of Nebraska’s Our Students, Our Future fundraising initiative, which is helping to make better futures for us all. The two-year, $200 million initiative seeks gifts in support of students and goes through 2017.

If you would like to help promising students like Alyssia make the world a better place, please contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216 or send us a message.

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