Featured Students


Winter break is December 24 through January 4

University offices will be closed but our Application for Graduate Admission will still be open.

If you apply during the break we'll contact you with additional details in early January. You may receive automated app-related messages before then. You'll gain access to GAMES, if applicable, after your application has been processed.

Mon-Ray Shao, a native Southern Californian, shares why he made the move to Nebraska to study in Dr. Sally Mackenzie's lab

Mon-Ray Shao

(February 2012) When Mon-Ray Shao, a first year doctoral student in Agronomy, was looking for graduate programs, he was seeking a state-of-the-art laboratory with access to agricultural fields. "I checked out multiple schools to find a project that was ideal for me and narrowed the pool of projects to plant biology and plant breeding for crop improvement." After much searching, Mon-Ray, who received his bachelor and master degrees from the University of California-San Diego, found Dr. Sally Mackenzie's lab here at UNL. "My thesis advisor said wonderful things about Dr. Mackenzie and suggested I look into her research. I'm glad I took my advisor's advice because I really liked what I saw."

Mon-Ray was happy to find a program that wasn't too far away from home and fit his educational needs, but the main factor that helped Mon-Ray choose Nebraska was his visit to campus. "I was really interested in Dr. Mackenzie's research and when I met her during my visit to Nebraska, I was thoroughly impressed. Dr. Mackenzie is an ambitious, enthusiastic scientist, and I knew I wanted that same energy to rub off on me." During his visit, Mon-Ray learned more about the department, facilities and how he would fit in with his future lab mates. "I liked the department because I thought it was a good size. The Beadle Center is extremely high-tech and the facilities here are fantastic. UNL surpassed other schools because of the buildings, labs, and technology it has for plant biology."

Since beginning his program, Mon-Ray has participated in innovative work in the plant biology field. "My broader research interests are integrating emerging fields in plant biology to work on plant breeding. I want to be at the interface between fundamental plant biology and upstream plant breeding. I think that plant biology is going to be a more important discipline because of the arrival of cheaper technology that allows us to work like never before." Mon-Ray is currently working on a systems biology approach that studies plant organelles and how they can be manipulated to affect agronomically-relevant traits.

Mon-Ray says the most important thing to do when looking into graduate programs is to keep all of your options open. "Think about where you want to be in 10 years, and make a strategy for yourself. You will have to seek out what you want. Sometimes, just previewing short descriptions on websites doesn't give you the whole picture. Labs move quickly, and it is imperative that you look into any lab that may be good for you — truly check it out." He also suggests using all of the resources available to you. "Cast a wide net and use your network. Nebraska wasn't even on my radar until I talked to my thesis advisor, and the program here at UNL turned out to be exactly what I want for my doctorate."

Meeting with Dr. Mackenzie and visiting Lincoln confirmed that UNL was the place for Mon-Ray. "I am glad I made the decision to come here. The people in my lab communicate and collaborate well with each and that's one of my favorite characteristics of the program. I get along really well with my professor, and I couldn't be happier." The people aren't the only thing Mon-Ray enjoys about his program. "It's kind of cool when I find myself working out in the fields in the morning, getting my hands dirty, and researching in the lab later that day. Having that broad range of experience allows me to feel like I am doing exactly what I imagined myself doing."

Diana Carole Awuor, master's student in Educational Administration, shares her experience of searching for the right graduate school

Diana Carole Awuor

(September 2011) When Diana Carole Awuor began researching graduate programs, her first (and best) resource was the internet. She began searching for a program that could help her meet her professional goal of working in Kenya's higher education system. "I found out about the Educational Administration program at UNL from Google — I know this might sound unbelievable, but it's true!"

Diana's interest in pursuing graduate education began when she served as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at Fayetteville State University while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Kenyatta University in her native Kenya. She began searching online for higher education administration programs and learned about several programs at different universities, but none seemed like the right fit until she came across UNL's Educational Administration program. "Finding UNL's program was almost a relief to me. I knew I wanted to go back to Kenya and be an administrator there, and the courses offered at UNL and the skills I knew I would acquire were relevant to my needs."

Though she already felt that UNL's program was the right match for her, Diana contacted the Department of Education Administration to ask more in-depth questions. She was pleased by the friendliness and helpfulness of the University staff who provided her with a great deal of information that confirmed her initial evaluation. "Ms. Sheila Hayes from the Department of Educational Administration was very helpful in making me aware of exactly what the program entailed."

For those still in the research phase, Diana recommends prospective graduate students to seek out a program that will fulfill them academically and prepare them professionally. "I would advise students to ensure they compare what the institution offers with what they desire to achieve in their careers." For example, Diana believes UNL's Educational Administration program provides an "international feel" and that was a contributing factor in her decision to attend UNL. Knowing she'd eventually return to Kenya to continue her career, Diana needed a program that could provide her with training and knowledge that she can use in education systems in the US and abroad. UNL's diverse curriculum was the perfect fit.

Ashley Tharayil, Ph.D. student in Economics, shares her story about visiting campus

Ashley Tharayil

(March 2011) As an undergraduate majoring in economics and mathematics at Austin College in Sherman, TX, Ashley Tharayil planned to teach at the college level, but she hadn't decided on the subject. She researched UNL's faculty and read Dr. William Walstad's research on economics education. "I hadn't read anything about teaching in economics until I found Dr. Walstad's research, and a lot of what he said made sense to me." After Ashley received an offer of admission to UNL's doctoral program in Economics, as well as an attractive financial package including an assistantship and fellowship, she began to seriously analyze what life as a graduate student would be like at UNL.

Ashley contacted graduate chair Dr. Matthew Cushing and requested a campus visit. Dr. Cushing set up meetings with faculty members who shared Ashley's research interests, arranged a lunch with current students, and scheduled a campus tour. Ashley enjoyed having the chance to get to know the campus and department better. Luckily, Ashley's parents had the opportunity to join her on the visit and explored Lincoln during her department appointments. "It was a good opportunity for all of us. My parents liked Lincoln and felt reassured about me moving so far away from home. After visiting UNL, I knew it was the right fit."

Now that she has been a UNL for almost a full year, Ashley says she's learned a lot about being a graduate student and has also encountered a few surprises. She realized she had to work harder in her classes and that learning wasn't limited to what was found in a textbook. And she's been surprised by her classmates. "I didn't expect my department to be so diverse, not just in ethnicity but in age, background, and experience. I have a very wide range of perspectives to learn from during and outside of class."

Ashley craved more interaction with other students and since she spent part of her childhood in India, she recently joined the Indian Students Association. "Last semester I felt a little crazy after spending so much time on school work. I didn't have a chance to get out and meet people." Ashley has enjoyed the friends she's met through the Indian Students Association and the additional perspective in which to learn from. "I definitely made the right choice. The people are great, I'm learning a lot and I really enjoy my classes. Everything just clicks."

Mark Koten, Ph.D. student in Materials Engineering, reflects about how he got to UNL and where he's going next

Mark Koten

(January 2011) For Mark Koten, a doctoral student in Materials Engineering, finding a good fit for graduate school was easier than he had anticipated. As an undergraduate physics major at Gustavus Adolphus College, Mark knew he needed a research experience to round out his education. Luckily, Mark had a great mentor at Gustavus Adolphus and together they applied for a faculty-student pairing summer research opportunity at UNL. "It was really nice coming to UNL for the summer with my mentor. Although he didn't stay for the full 10-week program, it helped initially to get into the laboratory and research at UNL."

Mark participated in the Nanomaterials and Nanoscience REU through the Nebraska Summer Research Program in summer 2009. He worked with Dr. Jeffery Shield, a UNL faculty member in mechanical and materials engineering, graduate students and summer research scholars. "The experience helped with confidence and independence in the lab," Mark says. And although Mark wasn't planning to find a graduate program that summer, he applied to graduate school at UNL specifically to work with Dr. Shield. Mark acknowledges, "When it was time to choose a (graduate) program last fall, I picked UNL because I already knew the dynamics in the lab and that I worked well with my mentor." A competitive offer, including an assistantship and Othmer fellowship made UNL an even more appealing choice.

Now a semester into his graduate program, Mark is working on figuring out his research agenda and a direction for his career and post-graduate plans. "I wasn't sure about how my graduate program would be shaped but my mentor has been very helpful. He's suggested a conference that I plan to attend this summer." It will give Mark a chance to explore his field through a professional discipline conference and he'll also learn about academic opportunities. In addition, Mark is exploring careers outside of academia. "I want to be prepared for working in the private sector, if that's where my education takes me. I'm planning to take courses in entrepreneurship."

As Mark adjusts to life as a graduate student and the academic demands, he's realizing that his social life isn't thriving quite like it had during his undergraduate program. "My research is my job and it comes first, but I'm going to try attending more events on campus so I can meet people." Mark says he's doing a good job at keeping everything in perspective. And although, he doesn't quite know where his path after graduate school is headed, he has some ideas and is staying flexible.

Mark's advice for incoming graduate students is to jump into academic and social opportunities when you arrive at UNL. "Academics are important, but it is nice to get out once in a while too. Both are important and will help you get to where you're going."

Anh Do, Ph.D. student in Child, Youth and Family Studies, shares her experiences that highlight the importance of relationships and community

Anh Do

(December 2010) For Anh Do, doctoral student in Child, Youth and Family Studies, community has had a lasting impact on her journey and she plans to incorporate it into her education and research.

Anh says her story begins when she was eleven years old and her family moved to Lincoln from Vietnam through the Refugee Resettlement program. Anh and her family were supported and welcomed by a large Vietnamese community. The support and the resources they provided made a positive impact on how Anh and her family adjusted to their new life in the United States — something she didn't forget.

Anh chose to stay close to home for her undergraduate education and decided to pursue a psychology and ethnic studies major at UNL. When she was given the opportunity to participate in the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) program with a faculty mentor in Child, Youth and Family Studies, Anh started to consider graduate school. Her faculty mentor encouraged her to consider UNL. "The appeal was the heavy emphasis on family and community research as well as the department commitment to research extension. Today I'm working with a research extension faculty member who finds ways to bring the benefits of our research to the community. For me, this is what research is all about."

In fact, Anh just finished working on a project that looked at perceptions of mental health among the Vietnamese population. She was interested in finding barriers to mental health services among Vietnamese populations and then looking for ways to reduce those barriers. For Anh, it's the intersection of multiple communities that's intriguing and real-world, applicable research.

As Anh thinks about her first two years as a graduate student, she recalls that making the transition from an undergraduate student to a graduate student was helped by her experience on campus and her relationships with faculty. "My mentor helped make sure I knew about all the different department events during my first year and we regularly met up for coffee. It was helpful to have a peer relationship right from the beginning of my program. Now I'm a mentor and I'm glad for the chance to help new students."

One thing Anh shares with her mentees is the change in learning and the importance of discussion in the classroom. "As a graduate student, my learning is much more independent and much less structured. I am responsible for more of what I learn than I was as an undergraduate. I also really had to develop my discussion skills and learn how to ask critical questions in the classroom setting."

Anh also notes the importance of taking time to step back and look at her accomplishments. "Sometimes I feel like everything is so rushed, there is always a deadline coming up or a proposal to write. So when I feel overwhelmed by everything I'm doing, I stop and think about the bigger picture. I've done a lot over the last few years but it hasn't just been rush, rush, rush. I have a solid foundation for my doctoral program and I'm really proud of the research I've already accomplished too."

Great advice for any graduate student.

Derrick White, doctoral student in Biological Sciences from Mississippi, shares his lessons learned and how trusting his mentors influenced his path

Derrick White

Derrick White, a third-year doctoral student in Biological Sciences was always curious about biology and the way organisms work together. He completed a bachelor's and master's degree at Jackson State University in biology and had planned to continue at Jackson State for his doctoral work. His mentor and other faculty in the department, however, encouraged Derrick to change his educational setting and to explore other programs. "My mentors felt that it was important for me to gain research experience at a different institution and work with different faculty members," Derrick recalled.

Derrick had worked closely with several faculty mentors through the McNair Scholars and Louis Stokes Mississippi Alliance for Minority Participation (LSMAMP) programs to prepare for doctoral-level education. The skills and knowledge learned through these programs made a difference in how competitive Derrick was when applying to doctoral programs. And the relationships he built through his participation made a difference when he relented and trusted the advice from his mentors and to look outside of his "comfort zone" for graduate programs.

One of Derrick's mentors, the Dean of Graduate Studies at Jackson State, Dorris Robinson-Gardner suggested that he add Nebraska to his short list of graduate schools. Derrick researched UNL's biological sciences program and decided to apply. After visiting campus, he could really see himself at UNL. "When I talked to faculty, I could tell they genuinely cared about students and I could tell they cared about me and wanted me to be a part of the program. When I left, I wanted to come back to Nebraska."

When Derrick started his doctoral program at UNL, he knew that just like at Jackson State his relationships with mentors would be important to his success. For instance, Derrick knew time management was an area that he needed to continue to work and turned to his mentor for guidance. "My mentor works with me to create timelines and helps me stay on track. He takes the time to talk to every student in his lab every day. He always knows what I'm doing and he's available when I need help."

Derrick recognizes, "As a graduate student, you really have to be an independent learner and be self-motivated. I love learning new things. I learn something new every day. There are sacrifices, but it's also about learning how to balance your life." Derrick knew finding balance meant building a new network of friends for support and social "distractions." Derrick joined the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), and quickly found a welcoming group of peers. "I like going to the BGSA social events. It's a chance for me to get out and spend time with friends who know what it's like to be a graduate student. I'm as serious as anyone else in the lab when it comes to my research, but sometimes you need to get away for a few hours."

When Derrick thinks about where he'll be in two years, he isn't sure about following the tenure track. He knows it depends on what opportunities are available and isn't ruling anything out. He also knows that just as with his decision to leave Jackson State, the advice of his mentors will be really important. "I'm doing exciting, ground-breaking research with my mentor. That's really what I want when my degree is over. I want to be doing something exciting, but I always want to be learning."

Maegan Stevens-Liska, master's student in history and Nebraska native, comes home from adventures abroad to embark on new adventures at UNL

Maegan Stevens-Liska

(January 2010) Maegan Stevens-Liska, a master's student in history doesn't think her experiences in higher education are very typical. To begin with, before starting her bachelor's degree, Maegan spent three years working and living in Dresden, Germany, with her husband while he finished his doctorate. When they returned to Nebraska where her husband had secured a post-doctoral position, Maegan started working towards a bachelor's in sociology at UNL. "It just felt right. It was good to be home in Nebraska."

While an undergraduate Maegan was accepted into the McNair Scholars Program, but when it was time to find a mentor for her undergraduate research experience, she had trouble finding a good match. "So here I was, getting ready to start this incredible program and I didn't have a faculty mentor." Maegan was frustrated and was telling another faculty member about it when it lead to a conversation about her research interests. Maegan shared what she was interested in and the faculty member responded with, "you may be more of a historian than a sociologist." After a meeting with the graduate chair in history, Maegan changed her major and her path began to take shape.

Maegan completed a research project and undergraduate thesis with her mentor, Dr. Le Sueur in the UNL history department, and started applying to history graduate programs. Maegan was admitted to her top choice, University of California Davis and she was looking forward to the program, but extensive budget cuts at the university ended her chances at funding. "I talked to Dr. Laurie Bellows, the McNair Program Director about what had happened and we started talking about how being in the McNair program really had changed the way I thought about research and how I wanted to be part of that discovery process for undergraduate students. Dr. Bellows mentioned needing a graduate assistant to help with the incoming McNair scholars' research projects and after that everything just fell into place." Maegan accepted the assistantship with the McNair program and started working towards her master's in history, maintaining her relationship with Dr. Le Sueur, also her master's advisor.

Everything was falling into place for her husband too. "My husband was offered a tenure track position in the Biological Systems Engineering department at UNL. We knew that some couples lived apart while one person worked and the other went to school, but we also knew that wasn't right for us. The position was absolutely right for him and for our situation."

In her second semester as a graduate student, Maegan says she is still trying to find the right balance between school, work and home life. Her busy schedule has her thinking about her career goals and what she wants to accomplish. "If you asked me a year ago, I wanted to do a Ph.D. and I had every intention of continuing in graduate school, but lately I've been thinking about what that means and what I really want. I'm learning that history research can be very solitary and I've made the decision that ultimately I don't want to teach."

From all of her hours in the library Maegan started talking to and getting to know the librarians which got her thinking about a new path for her career. "Something that really drew me to history is the problem solving nature of being a historian. When I worked for Dr. Le Sueur as a research assistant, the idea of "problem solving" was one of the most fascinating aspects of research for me. I loved it." After getting to know more librarians and what they do, Maegan discovered library science is not only about problem solving but that it would give her the opportunity to work with both students and faculty on their research.

"As an undergraduate I had no idea there were library liaisons for every department. When I discovered the library liaisons, I discovered an incredible wealth of knowledge. Many of them work closely with faculty conducting research, which is something I'd ultimately like to be involved in." Maegan also recognizes that she enjoys working with students outside of the classroom environment, expanding their knowledge of research methods. "Library science would allow me to do that and sounds like a great option for me. I plan to work on a second master's degree in library science after completing my master's in history next year."

Maegan's experiences with the McNair Scholars Program, the mentoring she received and some happenstance conversations with faculty helped her weave a unique path in education. Maegan says she's looking forward to the next adventure on her path to accomplish her goals.

Marina Marshenkulova, Fulbright scholar and M.A. student in journalism, makes the most of every opportunity

Marina Marshenkulova

(December 2009) Marina Marshenkulova, a master's student in Journalism and Mass Communications never thought she would pursue a career in writing or journalism. After completing her specialist degree in translation, teaching and linguistics at Kabardino-Balkarian State University in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, Marina worked as an English teacher and tutor. Then after submitting an article for her local newspaper, the editor immediately took an interest in Mariana and invited her to join the staff. Part of her new job involved posting career and scholarship opportunities and after four years in her job Marina noticed an announcement for a Fulbright scholarship. "I had graduated from high school in Massachusetts and was already thinking about going back to the United States for my master's degree. The Fulbright announcement came across my desk at just the right time and I decided to get more information about the application process."

A year after applying for the Fulbright scholarship, Marina received the letter that brought her to Nebraska. "I was surprised because when you apply for a Fulbright scholarship, the foundation chooses where you'll go to school. Nebraska wasn't one of my top choices and I didn't know very much about UNL's journalism program, so I started contacting faculty and doing some research. By the time I left [Russia], I was really excited about attending UNL."

Marina quickly discovered the benefits to being at UNL. "The faculty are very supportive and I have a good relationship with all my professors. Lincoln is a great place to go to graduate school because it's easy to focus on studying. When I want to go out and do something there is plenty to do, but I don't have so many distractions that I never want to study."

Marina acknowledges one of the factors in her success at UNL was the transition and getting started on the right foot. "I attended everything my department offered, the international student orientation and the Graduate Studies orientation. Those activities helped me get to know other students and learn more about the campus community." She also paid attention to factors outside of academics and took advantage of the Campus Recreation Center. "I go to the gym regularly and make an effort to eat well. It isn't easy, but I want to stay healthy. Being healthy doesn't just mean I'm sick less frequently, I think it helps me focus on school better too."

Marina also decided to be proactive and to make the most of her time at UNL by meeting and spending time with students from a variety of backgrounds. She knew from experience that it would be tempting to spend time mostly with students who spoke her native language, but Marina worked to build relationships and to meet as many new people as she could. This is her advice for any international student.

Marina isn't sure what she'll do after leaving UNL. She hopes her education at UNL will help her be a better chief correspondent when she returns to Kabardino-Balkarian and has thought about writing for a magazine. Her long term goals are flexible. She's sure of one thing though, she isn't afraid to take advantage of the next opportunity that crosses her desk.

Enoch Ulmer, master's student in music, credits an unexpected mentor for getting him on the path to graduate education

Enoch Ulmer

(October 2009) Enoch Ulmer, a master's student in the School of Music, returned home to Lincoln, Nebraska, for graduate school even though as a high school student he had counted down the days until he could leave. "I felt the urge to leave Lincoln for more excitement, new people, and new experiences." But looking back now, Enoch says, "All of the things I expected to happen after I left Lincoln have happened to me since I moved back."

Enoch pursued a bachelor's degree in music at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Upon graduation, he took a full-time position at Beloit as an admissions counselor, but knew it wasn't what he wanted to do. "I really wanted to be in a place where I could perform and be around performers." With the intention of saving money for a year and then moving to New York City, Enoch moved home to Lincoln.

Shortly after his return home, 9-11 happened and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Enoch made the decision to stay in Lincoln longer than he had originally planned and became involved in Lincoln's community theater. While performing in Westside Story, Enoch met Alisa Belflower, UNL's coordinator of musical theater. Alisa and Enoch quickly connected and Alisa became his mentor. "Working with Alisa really changed the direction my life was taking. She encouraged me to think seriously about graduate school."

After he applied and was accepted to UNL's master's program in vocal performance, Enoch prepared to leave full-time employment. "I knew it was going to be tough. I was planning to start my program with or without funding." Luckily, Enoch received an assistantship two weeks before classes started. "It was such a relief. Now I just had to worry about going back to school... I felt like I had been out of school for a long time." Returning to school was exactly what Enoch needed to get his professional life back on track, although there were adjustments. "When you work full time, you just have to balance work with your personal life. Suddenly I was balancing my classes, undergraduate students, homework, shows and personal life." Enoch recalls setting dates with friends and family to ensure he kept up with the important people in his life. "It didn't take me long to learn I needed to prioritize."

Enoch has really enjoyed teaching undergraduates and looks forward to getting more performance and life experiences to become the best teacher possible. "Teaching performance requires a wide range of human emotions that you can't learn from a book."

Enoch isn't sure what the next step is after graduation, but he knows there's no place like home. "Being back in Lincoln brought me closer to my family. I met my partner here and my mentor, too. All of these things have changed me and happened unexpectedly." Based on his experiences, Enoch advises other students not to focus solely on the end product but to enjoy the journey (and to find a good mentor!)

Jalele Defa, Ph.D. student in political science from Ethiopia, experiences the essence of Nebraska: the people

Jalele Defa

(September 2009) Jalele Defa, a Ph.D. student in political science, traveled the world to accomplish her educational goals. She began her journey in her home country of Ethiopia. "Location influenced my educational interests. I think I pursued political science because I grew up near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I always thought about what was going on there and that it was something I'd like to learn more about."

Jalele earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, then attended the Institute of Social Sciences in Holland. After earning her master's degree in development studies, she returned to Addis Ababa University as a lecturer of political science. Jalele was the only female lecturer in the political science department and this intrigued her, leading to a desire to study women's issues. While working on an effort to establish a journalism program at AAU, she had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with several UNL faculty members. "When I was considering my options for Ph.D. programs, I remembered how friendly, professional and helpful the faculty from UNL were while we worked together." This played a key role in her decision to apply to UNL.

Jalele has been very successful at UNL and looks forward to bringing her passion about the role of women in politics back to Ethiopia. In fact, in the spring of 2009, Jalele was one of nine women to receive an award from the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund. The fund, which is affiliated with the World Bank Family Network, recognizes female international students in the United States and Canada whose graduate studies and future plans aim to benefit women and children in their respective regions. Jalele returned to Africa and presented her paper "The Role of The New Media in African Elections" at the Greater Horn Horizon Forum.

At UNL, Jalele participates in the Transnational Feminism Group, comprising of UNL women from around the world who get together to discuss women's issues. "I enjoy the opportunity to meet with other women in the university community and discuss issues that are important to me and my country." Jalele also enjoys taking courses outside political science. "Every time I take a class in my own department or in another department, I make a new friend."

Jalele's biggest surprise about graduate school in Lincoln, though, was how easy it has been to focus on her studies. "Lincoln is the perfect place to go to school. Lincoln isn't a city that is so big that I always want to go somewhere or do something, but it's big enough that when I need a distraction I can find one. There are so many different people to meet and talk to. It's just perfect for me."

While Jalele enjoys being in Lincoln, she also is excited to continue her research and to return to her tenure-track faculty appointment at AAU. Jalele believes she will take home more than her Ph.D. "UNL has made me more confident and grounded in both my studies and teaching abilities. I've learned new ways to interact with the university community, and I'm excited to return home where I can incorporate my new skills in my teaching and research."

Xiaoyue Song, master's student in construction from China, credits connections for her success

Xiaoyue Song

(April 2009) Xiaoyue (SHEE-ou-wei) Song, master's student in construction from Bejing, China, says, "It's been a great experience. I've enjoyed the community a lot, especially how nice everyone is and how open and connected to nature I can be here." Xiaoyue has been impressed by a number of things at the Durham School and Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha, where the UNL construction program is housed, and is excited to tell others about her experiences.

Xiaoyue credits a few things that enabled her to have a smooth transition to the United States, although without hesitation she says language was the biggest challenge. "Language was very difficult during the first few weeks. Even though I had worked to learn English for a couple of years, everyone talks very fast and I had trouble understanding." Xiaoyue says this was more of an issue outside of the classroom than inside. In fact, one professor who had a Middle Eastern accent approached Xiaoyue after class on the first day and asked if she understood and offered more explanation of the lesson. Not only was Xiaoyue impressed by the offer, but she says the extra attention made a difference in her success and connection to the department.

When her mother visited from China last year, another professor hosted a dinner at his house for them. These relationships have made her even more confident in her decision to attend UNL. "The professors were the most important factor to my selection of graduate programs. The faculties here have a lot of experience and are connected to top industry leaders in my field." Faculty helped Xiaoyue secure an internship at Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc. last summer, and she admits with a smile, "My friends back home were a little jealous." Staying connected to family and friends has allowed Xiaoyue to enjoy her experiences without feeling homesick. "Most of my family and friends are in Bejing. I can call often and they have access to the web. I'm very lucky. I have a lot of support from my parents and extended family," says Xiaoyue.

Xiaoyue also has a support system at PKI through the Chinese Student Association. Members of the Chinese Student Association picked up Xiaoyue from the airport when she arrived in August, helped her secure housing arrangements, provided transportation to get furniture, moved her into an apartment, and introduced her to other students. "I made connections with friends and I felt like Omaha was going to be a very nice place to live... I'd be on an air mattress still without them," she jokes. Xiaoyue also acknowledges the importance of her department's staff. "They were very supportive and ensured the smooth transition for inter-campus students [UNL students whose programs are housed in Omaha], especially international students, like me. I can't imagine life without them." Xiaoyue says the department secretary was especially helpful in responding to questions when she was deciding which letter of offer from graduate programs to accept and in preparing for her arrival to the U.S.

Xiaoyue says other highlights of her time in Omaha have been sledding in Memorial Park with the Durham School faculty and other students, the piano practicing rooms provided on campus, watching birds visit the feeder on her apartment deck during the spring, and participating in the Badminton Association. Last fall, Xiaoyue took silver in the Midwest tournament. "It's a great way to have balance in my life and I have the opportunity to appreciate nature and the smaller things since it's not so hectic here." Xiaoyue has really enjoyed the slower pace of Omaha compared to Bejing and the excitement of the climate. "It's a great place to live and study and I think the weather is fun to experience."

Steve Frese, Ph.D. student in food science, credits a summer research experience for helping him choose a graduate program

Steve Frese

(February 2009) Steve Frese, a Food Science and Technology doctoral student and Pennsylvania native, credits the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's summer research program with helping him choose a graduate school, and for helping him make the transition from a small East Coast college to a large Midwest research institution. "The summer program was a great experience and it changed my decision about graduate school. Before I came to Nebraska, it wasn't even a state I was considering for graduate programs, but by the time I left, I was looking forward to coming back."

When Steve mentioned he was looking for a summer research experience, a friend who had been a past UNL summer research participant encouraged him to apply to UNL's program. Steve was majoring in biology and looking for a program that offered a variety of research topics. He decided to join UNL's 2007 summer research program in plant sciences. "I enjoyed the summer program for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of the networks I made with students from other campuses and with the people on UNL's campus."

During the program, Steve enjoyed his work in plant sciences but also started researching related programs. "One of the graduate students I was working with knew someone in the food science department and helped me arrange a meeting with a faculty member I'd read about online. His work was really interesting, and after spending some time talking to him, I started to see myself doing research in this area." By the end of the program in August, Steve had decided to apply to the graduate program in food science, with the intent of joining the lab of the faculty member he had met just a short time before.

The summer program also made easier Steve's transition from a small college near his family to a large university far from home. "When I wasn't in the lab and on weekends, I had a chance to get to know Lincoln. I enjoyed the time exploring downtown and the Haymarket." A few months prior to the start of his graduate program, Steve decided to move to Lincoln and further acquaint himself. "I was already comfortable with the town from when I was here for summer research, but decided to get reacquainted by moving in June. I was able to get used to living so far from home without the stress of starting my program right away."

Once Steve started his program in Food Science, he found that UNL's East Campus, which is smaller than City Campus, made him feel a little more at ease because it was similar to his undergraduate institution. Steve also found "hidden gems" there, such as the Food Processing Center, which produces and sells a variety of products. "They have this great honey ice cream and their spaghetti sauce is hands down the best. It's really incredible to watch how they create the products."

Steve continues to thrive in his graduate program and looks forward to welcoming the 2009 summer scholars to campus. "The people here are very friendly, which made a big difference in my transition, and in the end these networks helped me find my path to food science."

Joan Dreiling, Ph.D. student in physics and Kansas native, talks about putting all the factors in perspective as she chose the program that was right for her

Joan Dreiling

(February 2009) Joan Dreiling, doctoral student in physics and Kansas native, experienced what she describes as the "typical graduate school application process." She had good mentors who encouraged her to go to graduate school and she sought their advice about the best programs to which to apply. She developed a list of what was important to her in a graduate program and started to research programs that were potential matches. "I knew I was most concerned about the nature and quality of the research, but size, location, and funding were also important," says Joan. She developed a short list, completed applications, and waited for letters of offer to arrive in the spring.

Joan received several offers of admission and visited each campus before making a decision. "The campus visit was a great way to get the feel of the program in a way that I couldn't from the Web site." The first program Joan visited was highly ranked with a lot of research opportunities, but too large and formal. "It definitely was an environment of 'publish or perish.' You could really feel the stress there." Another program was closer to home, but after visiting, Joan realized the research program was not a good fit. The third program was further from home, but had the kind of research program she wanted and offered a full research fellowship, which would have allowed her to focus on her research the first few years without any teaching responsibilities. "Although I wanted to have experience teaching, it was very attractive to be able to fit that into my program later, not in the first two years." And then there was UNL.

Two of Joan's undergraduate professors had received their Ph.D.s from Nebraska and had introduced her to the UNL physics program when she was a junior. They had arranged a campus visit and Joan was impressed when two faculty members took her out to dinner. "I was only a junior and they were interested in recruiting me." UNL's program was smaller than she was looking for, but when Nebraska offered her an assistantship and fellowship, Joan remembered her visit as a junior and again felt that the physics department was really interested in having her join the program. "Nebraska had a strong research program, a more relaxed environment, was closer to home, and they offered me an assistantship and fellowship. It really was a good fit. It fit my personality, and the connection to my undergraduate mentors gave me a sense of joining a 'family'."

Now that she has finished her first semester as a doctoral student and passed her first qualifying exam, Joan is even more certain Nebraska was the right choice for her. "The program has met my expectations. I work with talented faculty on research that is interesting to me, teaching is fun, I'm close enough to home for a weekend visit, and I earn enough money that I don't have to worry about my living expenses." Joan found the right combination of factors at Nebraska — and she hopes her "typical experience" is the same for other prospective graduate students, too.

Leslie Martinez, South Texas native and Ph.D. student in psychology follows her own path

Leslie Martinez

(December 2008) When Leslie Martinez talks about her path to graduate school and to Lincoln, Nebraska, from San Antonio, Texas, she prefaces her story with "Do you believe in signs?"

For Leslie, a lot of things fell into place at just the right time to give her confidence in her journey, despite the challenges. As the first one in her family to leave South Texas and to attend graduate school, Leslie has struggled to help her extended family understand what she is doing. "My grandmother only speaks Spanish and I don't know the words to explain research, that at the end I'll be 'a doctor' but not 'a doctor'." She often is asked if she will be coming home for the summer, and if you ask any of her family members where she is, they'll reply, "the North." Leslie laughs and explains that in South Texas, Dallas is considered "the North."

Fortunately, Leslie's fiancé, Stan, was able to relocate with her, which Leslie says has made the fact that she is far from home easier, although now they are away from two families. And while at first Leslie felt guilty about uprooting her now spouse, they both are very happy in Lincoln. "[In Texas] we never had to try to be a part of Mexican traditions like Day of the Dead celebrations, but here [in Lincoln] the choices are more limited. They are here, but we had to look for them. It is different, but it has given us a better appreciation about where we came from," says Leslie. (Leslie, however, doesn't recommend planning a wedding long distance during the first year of a Ph.D. program.)

Initially, the dynamic of family and the important contribution the family environment makes to success in the Hispanic and Latino community were the foci of Leslie's research. Leslie has since narrowed her focus and has found her passion in exploring social attitudes about Mexican Americans and their impacts within Hispanic communities. To her benefit, Leslie has focused on creating a well-rounded experience and has taken advantage of unique opportunities. She has held assistantships as a TA in her department and as a TA and instructor in the Institute for Ethnic Studies; in her current role with the McNair Scholars program, she advises, mentors and plans programming for undergraduates underrepresented in graduate education in preparation for graduate school. She also is active in the campus-wide Graduate Student Association.

Leslie is still amazed at how her experience at Nebraska matches pretty much exactly the way her adviser, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, described it the day she called to offer her admission to the program four years ago. "It's been a really good match. I can't imagine having different ideas and feeling like I was forcing myself into someone else's interests."

Leslie admits that even though she was denied admission to the other programs to which she applied, Nebraska was her first choice because of Professor Willis-Esqueda's research. "And to think the only reason I applied to Nebraska was because at a grad fair I was hunting for free school supplies," Leslie recalls as she tells the story of how a four-pack of highlighters caught her eye at a Nebraska recruitment table. When she stopped, the recruiter commented that he and Leslie both were wearing Texas A&M Aggie rings, and they immediately connected. "It was a sign. I would never have even known about the 'North' otherwise," Leslie laughs.

Now as she prepares to enter the ABD (all but dissertation) stage in her quest for a Ph.D. in social psychology, Leslie looks back on her journey and the times she felt "totally lost," and moves confidently forward, grounded by her passion and her commitment to her goals.

Darin Kelberlau, Ph.D. student in educational psychology, shares a "non-traditional" approach to graduate education

Darin Kelberlau

(November 2008) Darin Kelberlau, Nebraska native and Ph.D. student in the quantitative, qualitative and psychometric methods (QQPM) specialization in educational psychology, didn't follow a "traditional" path to graduate education. Nor did he complete the application process in the typical order or progress through his program of study as he originally imagined.

Instead, Darin says, "It all just came together, I'm still not exactly sure how it did, but my adviser and my first class made a huge difference." Now, as Darin prepares to finish his last two courses and to enter the dissertation stage, he reflects on the last eight years.

Darin taught mathematics and statistics at area middle and high schools for more than 10 years, before starting his Ph.D. He learned about the program in QQPM after attending a summer professional development opportunity on assessment literacy. The coordinating professor, Del Harnisch, who is now Darin's adviser, encouraged him to consider a career in educational assessment.

Darin started by taking courses as a non-degree student before applying and getting accepted into the program. He also completed an educational leadership certificate necessary for K-12 administration and another endorsement, all while working on his Ph.D.; hence the eight year journey. Darin knew, however, he would need all of these pieces to secure the position he was preparing for as a district-wide director of assessment. Also, shortly into his doctoral program, Darin was hired by a nearby school district as an assessment coordinator, where he educates teachers about sound assessment practices and monitors reliability coefficients for district assessments.

Although an extended time-to-degree is a reality when attending graduate school part-time and other hardships result from following a "non-traditional" path, Darin doesn't see them all as disadvantages. "Some of the disadvantages [of being a part-time student] are actually advantages: I am in a position where I can apply what I learn in the classroom and I can use real-world examples for class. I think it actually makes me a better student and better at my job," Darin says.

Darin is an example of the commitment and motivation all students, but part-time students in particular, must have to be successful. Balancing family, school, and work hasn't always been easy, but Darin credits his family's support, his relationship with his adviser, and his passion and excitement for the discipline for getting him this far. Darin has financed most of his education himself, which meant taking side jobs coaching tennis, teaching online for a local college, and putting back money each month for tuition bills. If you ask Darin about his experience, though, he'll smile and tell you, "It's tough, but all worth it."

Sara Reynolds, Ph.D. student in Mathematics and New York native, finds a fit in interdisciplinary research

Sara Reynolds

(September 2008) Like many students, New York native Sara Reynolds began college as an undergraduate with a wide variety of interests and was unaware of the possibility of combining them into one field. Luckily, an undergraduate summer research experience helped her realize opportunities in interdisciplinary research, which also started her on her path to Nebraska. Sara, Ph.D. student in mathematics, said the array of cross-disciplinary research options were the reasons she choose the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Interdisciplinary research is now a high priority at research intensive universities, and for good reason. When scholars collaborate at the intersection of traditional disciplines, new knowledge and skills flow freely and lead to innovative discoveries.

Sara craved this openness but also knew she needed the structure of a sequence of courses in place which could guide her research and training. When Sara started exploring graduate programs, she looked for established mathematical biology or mathematical ecology programs, but in a climate of possibilities.

Sara remembers her interactions with Dr. David Logan, UNL mathematics professor who conducts research on global climate and how that "got me hooked. I applied the next day." During the annual visit weekend for prospective mathematics graduate students, Sara said she felt welcomed into the community of scholars immediately, and when the department arranged meetings with both mathematics and biological sciences faculty and students, she knew. "They clearly supported interdisciplinary research. [The program] includes laboratory rotations, which I was very excited [about] when I heard, because as a 'math student' I wasn't counting on that [opportunity]."

Sara also noted the added benefit of expanded social networks offered by interdisciplinary programs. It is easy to stay confined in graduate education to your primary department, but this program provides natural outlets for many intellectual and social opportunities.

Sara also shared some of her other favorite things about Lincoln, such as how bike-friendly the city is. Like many graduate students, Sara bikes daily to campus and appreciates the well-marked bike lanes and protected non-motorized commuter paths throughout the city.

For Sara, finding a fit in a graduate program took a bit of research and self-assessment. For others, it could be matter of serendipity where things just fall into place. At any rate, students who have found a good fit can definitely tell you about their experiences.

Maria Theresa McKinney talks about making tough decisions and maximizing campus visits

Theresa McKinney

(March 2008) Theresa McKinney, California native and master's student in the interdisciplinary program of survey research and methodology, credits her natural inquisitiveness and training during her years as an employee at a research center for how quickly she settled into Lincoln, Nebraska. "Granted, there are a lot of differences between here and the (San Francisco) Bay area, but it's easy to assume no one understands and that everyone in Nebraska was born and raised here. When you start asking questions, you'll find people are from all over. The people aren't that different than people any place else," Theresa says.

Her favorite question to start with is asking about someone's favorite place to eat before digging a little deeper. She has, however, noticed a difference in people's threshold for conversation between here and California. "Nebraskans are just more reserved. They're genuinely nice when telling me they don't want to answer my questions, which doesn't bother me. Their boundaries are just different," Theresa says.

Another observation from her inquisition is Nebraskans' approach to diversity. "The people you see in Nebraska may look different than those in California, but that doesn't mean they aren't engaged in our multicultural world. They have ideas about it but they just aren't as forward about it because they aren't wearing it on their skin or t-shirts," Theresa says. So she keeps asking questions, because now after she and her husband have developed a sense of place, she is ready to branch out and learn more.

Moving from California to Nebraska was just one of the transitions she worked through during the last few months. Her biggest adjustment, however, was going from employee to student. "It wasn't unpleasant but very different," says Theresa. She describes herself as in a "production mode" when working full time, but in graduate school she says, "It's all about a deeper level of thinking, not just turning out a product. Something I did for work now is just okay or adequate. I'm training to be an expert; it's a shift in perspective and approach to the work."

The decision to return to school came, Theresa says, when she was no longer able to contribute as much as she wanted to at work. "I had gaps in my knowledge. I looked around and thought if I want to be a decision maker, I need advanced training." Funding and time were two major factors in deciding to return to school as a full-time student versus part-time. Theresa and her husband don't have children, which also added flexibility to her decision. "Honestly, though," she says, "I was too impatient to wait five years, and the timing was right. We had a window and had to take the jump."

Theresa visited campus in April and had a tough decision to make about which school to attend. She remembers her first campus visit fondly, crediting research she completed online before she arrived, allowing her to ask more in-depth questions and to really get to know the department faculty and university. Two months later, she returned with her husband to Lincoln and they decided together it was the right fit. "Lincoln is an optimum place to do graduate school. The pace of life and cost of living were welcomed changes and relived some of the pressure of the West Coast." In fact, Theresa and her husband, who telecommutes for his job in San Francisco, bought a home during their visit in June. "We were excited because we could afford a house."

Like many people in the Midwest in late February, both Theresa and her husband are anxious for spring. "I'm surprised by how much more aware of the environment I am, but I'm ready for the farmer's market!"

Jon Allen, Ph.D. student in geosciences, talks about a graduate assistantship's lasting impression

Jon Allen

(January/February 2008) Among the many important characteristics and skills it takes to be successful in graduate school, Maine native Jon Allen, Ph.D. student in geosciences, exhibits one quite distinctively — passion. Jon was already excited about geology through his international travel as an undergraduate and his research during his master's program reinforced his commitment to the discipline, but his passion truly flourished through his graduate teaching assistantships as a doctoral student.

During Jon's master's program, he funded his education through research assistantships. "The RAs allowed me to be very focused on my research and on getting done," says Jon. When Jon started his doctoral program, however, he moved to a graduate teaching assistantship. "I believe one role of Ph.D. students is shaping their departments. A TA makes me feel like I'm pulling more of my weight in the department and is a fun way to earn my keep," Jon says with a big smile.

In fact, the TA experience has done much more than that for Jon. "I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and I caution any Ph.D. student who considers not taking a TA," says Jon. He continues "A TA allows you to gain command of a subject, to really know your field, and forces you to communicate and explain your discipline at an introductory level." Jon does confess that he had to re-learn some things, because as doctoral student one can get extremely specialized. "But it helped keep my eye on the larger picture, what I had been spending the last years of my life devoted to, and how that fits into the larger picture... perspective."

The graduate teaching assistantship has made a big difference for Jon. It is helping him decide between careers in industry and academia. And although he hasn't yet decided between the two, he does believe he can make a difference for the students he teaches. He gets animated as he describes his frustration with the misperceptions of geology, "It's important, just like biology, chemistry, and physics. It impacts our daily lives."

It was an adviser's passion and excitement about graduate students and the discipline that convinced Jon to consider Nebraska — "the fly-over state," as his friends and family in the Northeast joked. "I met Chris Fielding, my adviser, at a GSA (Geological Society of America) conference, and he followed up our meeting with pictures of the field site and an invitation to visit," remembers Jon. Since then the relationship between student and mentor has grown into a collegial friendship and has been instrumental in Jon's success.

"Students are an investment. Successful and happy graduate students show there is communication, trust, and a nurturing environment," says Jon. Essentially it was these things that helped Jon decide to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for his master's program three years ago, and again for his doctoral program in 2006.

Aziza Kibonge, Fulbright Scholar, says "preparation and expectations are keys to success"

Aziza Kibonge

(November/December 2007) Things didn't just fall into place for agricultural economics doctoral student Aziza Kibonge. "It took hard work and a lot of preparation to get here," Aziza recalls. Hundreds of miles from her closest family, Aziza, first year Ph.D. student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, talks about the challenges of an international student achieving her dream of studying in the United States.

As an undergraduate, Aziza studied economics at Protestant University of Congo and always knew she wanted to help her country grow and advance. "My country has a lot of work to do and they need people well-trained in economics," says Aziza. To be most valuable to her country, she knew she needed advanced education in a country other than her own. "When I began my search I focused on universities in Europe because in the Democratic Republic the official language is French. However, I wanted to go to the U.S., but the language barrier was the first obstacle and securing funding was the second. I didn't know how it would come together," says Aziza.

Later that year, the U.S. Embassy held an informational session about graduate education describing opportunities for scholarships, providing assistance with application materials, and most importantly, offering English classes to anyone who was interested. Aziza learned about the Fulbright scholarship program and set her sights on attending college in the U.S. "I knew that Fulbright scholarships were very competitive, so I used the resources available to me as much as possible," says Aziza.

Over the course of six months, Aziza prepared for the TOEFL exam. She took advantage of the resources at the library, the U.S. Embassy, and those provided by her professors. "The TOEFL materials were not available in English and I couldn't check them out, which made preparation quite challenging," recalls Aziza. To compensate, "I spent a lot of time in the library and took a lot of notes. But for students preparing applications today, I imagine there are more resources — so much is online now," she says. Aziza also created resources and opportunities to acquire valuable information by contacting other students from her country who already were in the States and asking them to review her application materials and to talk about their experiences.

It was close to a year after submitting her application to Fulbright that Aziza received notification she was a 2004 recipient of the Fulbright scholarship. Fulbright helped Aziza with college selection and visa processes and secured a site for an intensive English program. "I was very excited when they called to tell me I was accepted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for my master's work and that I would be going to Tucson, Arizona, for seven months of intensive English," says Aziza.

To prepare for the transition to the U.S., Aziza says she asked a lot of questions and contacted her department and the International Student and Scholar Office. "Everyone at the University was very helpful with accommodations, transportation, arrival and meeting people. The students from my country I had contacted for help with the application processes also provided good information about what to expect in the U.S."

Aziza knew life in the U.S. was going to be different than home, but first-hand accounts of people who succeeded helped. She left the Democratic Republic of Congo feeling very prepared. From her experiences, though, Aziza recommends attending orientations and being "patient, careful and cautious" when first arriving. "It's fun to learn about the culture, but you'll make some mistakes. There are just too many differences between cultures. But the university community is always helpful and the Lincoln community is, too, for the most part," says Aziza.

Aziza has been successful in her graduate school career. In December 2006, she earned her master's degree, and she started her Ph.D. program the following spring. Aziza has attended professional conferences, presented papers, and is very involved with the Cultural Ambassadors on campus, an organization that helps international students adjust to the expectations and culture of the United States. Aziza's final thoughts are applicable to all students, "Work hard. Find a studying environment and use all the resources accessible to you. When it's challenging, rely on family and professors for support."

Ronda Smith, Ph.D. student in Management, chronicles her path as a first-generation college student and seasoned practitioner to the Ph.D.

Ronda Smith

(October 2007) When Ronda Smith completed her mortgage application two years ago, the loan officer asked her how many years she had attended school. Her response was "most or twenty-seven." She smiles and says "Yes, it's a joke in my family that I've spent the majority of my life in school." After graduating with her bachelor's degree in business administration in 1995 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ronda can count only a few semesters during which she hasn't taken classes. Her coursework included French (to prepare for a position with Disney World Resorts in Paris), a statistical series (to train others how to interpret survey results), and many others which would help her not only advance in her career but also continue to figure out what she really wanted to do. "The problem was I was making good money and I enjoyed what I did, but I wanted more and I didn't know exactly what," Ronda says.

But lately, all of her education and experiences have started to make sense. "It seems they all were preparing me for this — for the Ph.D. program and to consider a career in academia." That makes it all sound way too easy, when in reality it involved a lot of faith and taking risks. Maybe we should start at the beginning...

Ronda, a first generation college graduate, comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her mother and father used rental property income to send Ronda and her brother to college. "I never understood the sacrifices they made until I began funding my own graduate education and I had to get creative," says Ronda. Ronda, an entrepreneur, too, remembers making flyers and stuffing envelopes for her dad's car shows, selling the most boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and other small ventures that made business a natural choice for a career. At 18 she was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Center for Entrepreneurship which allowed her to join a sorority and get involved in extra-curricular activities. At 21 she left college for nine months to run a tee shirt imprinting business for which she had worked in high school. During this time, Ronda managed 15 employees, developed policies, and built training programs. "It was basically a very intense internship where I got great hands-on experience."

With all of her extra-curricular activities also came other sacrifices. "I have to admit, it took five and half years to graduate and my GPA wasn't that great; but I was very busy and had a lot of experiences that helped me in my career," says Ronda. After graduation, Ronda took a position with Walt Disney World Resorts and found unique ways of advancing through a human resources development program called Crossroads to Leadership. Ronda began with textile services. "Okay, it was laundry. Not the most glamorous but I was involved with high-level task forces, able to work with people from a lot of different cultures, all which shaped my career path." Ronda administered the global Walt Disney World Cast Excellence Survey for her area. She trained managers to use the statistical results to facilitate feedback and planning sessions. And then it hit her, "I was doing research and I liked it."

When Disney offered voluntary severance packages in efforts to downsize in 2001, Ronda decided it was the opportunity she had been waiting for, to have cash on hand that would enable her to go back to school full-time for a master's degree. "It was risky and my parents didn't understand why I was leaving a great job at a great company," says Ronda. But she packed her things and headed cross country back home to Nebraska where she began looking for a master's program.

Ronda knew what it was like preparing graduate school applications packets because she had applied to multiple MBA programs during her senior year in college in hopes of starting a program in the fall. "I can't even imagine what it would have been like if I had gotten into the MBA programs I had applied to right out of undergraduate," says Rhonda. She admits, "I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do and that was probably reflective in my application materials."

When it came to applying this time around, Ronda took a new approach. Instead of simply requesting letters of recommendation, she met with faculty and asked, "Do you support me going to graduate school?" She provided each with a substantial packet of information including what the program was looking for and her supporting documentation. "I was much more mature about the process. I had to know why I wanted the continuing education in the first place, so that the idea could be reflected in all of my materials," says Ronda.

In fall 2002, Ronda accepted an offer to join the industrial/organizational psychology program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. But four years later and after leaving a start-up business, Ronda still had that "itch" and was getting frustrated at her job prospects. Then she received a phone call that would change her career path. "These relationships were over ten years old, but I had kept in touch. Still, I was very surprised when I got the phone call." Ronda was approached by former faculty mentors in the College of Business Administration and asked to consider teaching an entrepreneurship course and applying to the doctoral program. "It was a quick decision. School was going to start in a mere four weeks. It was another leap of faith."

Rhonda admits until that summer she had not considered being faculty. "I was nervous. All of my education was focused on practice and I was unsure about making that switch, but I also saw the opportunity." Because the doctorate is a research-based degree and Ronda had been focusing on practice, she had to spend time reflecting on what she wanted to learn, what she wanted to do, and what she wanted to research — and most importantly, why. "Honestly, I'm still figuring this out but I'm taking advantage of programs like Preparing Future Faculty, which has been very helpful in my development."

Ronda started her doctoral program last year at the age of 34. "I think what is important is how much you grow and change as a part of this process. My path hasn't been a traditional one. Most times I'm either ahead of the pack or behind. I ask a lot of questions and get involved to be sure I know the ins and outs, but it's always a learning process," says Ronda. Her final thoughts, "Sometimes you just need a direction; and with a little faith, good education, training, networking, and mentoring, eventually it will all come together. Ask questions and you'll find your own answers." It has been a unique path, one that depended significantly upon support from mentors and family, and, most critically, upon Ronda's belief in herself.

Amy Lehman, mechanical engineer, looks forward to even bigger successes as she completes her master's degree and begins the Ph.D.

Amy Lehman

(July/August 2007) Success in research and graduate education is many times measured in small increments, if not by inches, then centimeters or millimeters. Often it is even difficult to explain to family and friends who are not familiar with a particular discipline what our successes look like. It can be a struggle to put it all in plain words. For mechanical engineering graduate student, Amy Lehman, however, the opposite is just the case.

After graduating from UNL in 2003 with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, Amy took a position in production and later in sales with a large manufacturer. And while her time in industry was short (she returned to UNL in January 2006), Amy says it "helped me to be more aware of what I'm doing, to see the market value and to be able to contribute more." Amy values being a key contributor in her research team and plans to make even bigger contributions to society — which is how she got into the UNL graduate program in the first place.

In late 2005, after being with her brother through his numerous treatments at the Nebraska Medical Center for a rare form of cancer, and watching hundreds of families come through the hospital doors, Amy knew there had to be more she could do more to help. This thought, combined with a childhood notion of becoming a doctor, inspired Amy to quit her full-time job and return to school. She considered medical school and explored other options, then finally called Dr. Shane Farritor, a professor she remembered from her undergrad program. As they were talking, Dr. Farritor told her about his research on a miniature robots used for minimally invasive surgery.

Only a few months later Amy had joined his lab and was participating in meetings with colleagues at the Nebraska Medical Center and contributing to the development of robots. "It's medicine from the engineering perspective," Amy says. Amy and her lab partners design, test and collaborate with surgeons to create a product that could "dramatically influence the future of minimally invasive surgery." Just this summer they tested the robot on a pig and have returned to the lab to continue the improvements.

For Amy's contributions on this project and her successes in her research, she was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a $30,000 award, in addition to $10,500 for research expenses and travel to conferences. Amy's successes continue to multiply as she has published articles in journals, presented at national conferences, and submitted three applications for patents. "My relationship with my adviser has been instrumental in my success. His ideas are innovative, it's a rewarding challenge to find ways to implement them" Amy says.

One other experience that stands out is working in the lab this summer with Abby, a McNair scholar. "When she first arrived, I gave her a stack of journal articles to read; now I will overhear her talking to someone about something I am not even familiar with yet," says Amy. Mentoring an undergraduate has helped Amy learn to explain processes and teach someone how to complete them. "It makes me consider my own reasoning to make sure I give the best advice I can. It's a good experience."

As Amy finishes her master's degree and begins to work toward a Ph.D., she reflects on her recent successes and her leap of faith. "My husband and I had just purchased a house and a new car and weren't planning on a reduction in income. But he has always been supportive and actually gives me the most honest opinions about my ideas. I didn't do all this alone." The environment in the lab and at UNL, key relationships and experiences, and faith and motivation all contributed to Amy's success in advancing her discipline.

Aleksandra Stein, Mathematics Ph.D. student, shares her perspective on the "ups and downs" of the first year

Aleksandra Stein

(June 2007) By taking a few risks and engaging in honest conversation, Aleksandra Stein, Hawaii native, survived her first year of graduate school as a doctoral student in mathematics. "It wasn't easy to go into the grad chair's office and request to take courses in dance, French or Spanish. I am a mathematician and I'm committed to my work, but I knew my commitment was going to be questioned," Aleksandra says.

Through good preparation, knowing herself and what she needed to be successful, and planning answers to tough questions, she was able to go into the conversation with a good case. She specifically talked about how courses in outside areas would help her stay focused and motivated and not get burned out. She emphasized the importance in meeting students in other disciplines and especially connecting, engaging and fulfilling her passion for culture. "I needed it," Aleksandra says.

At first, it didn't go over well with the graduate chair, but after she finished pleading her case, the chair said he understood and could see it made sense for her. "My advisers were willing to take a risk on me and that's why I picked UNL. The department was different. They were supportive and flexible." Rules about taking courses in outside departments exist to help students make progress in their program of study and to not delay graduation. But Aleksandra's graduate chair recognized there were times to make exceptions. And while Aleksandra admits it wasn't easy keeping up with an undergraduate French class, the professors understood and were accommodating in most situations.

When Aleksandra reflects on the last nine months, the peaks and valleys of the first year are vivid. "First you get here and you are meeting people, getting organized and are excited to be on your own and in your program. Then it hits you — the commitment you've made! The winter sets in and it's cold and the work gets harder. And finally spring comes. It's a beginning, a sense of renewal and the end is in sight. You look back and think wow, look at what I have accomplished in a year." She goes on to say, "You just have to keep in mind the big goal. It will be life changing," but adds "sometimes you need little goals to feel accomplished, to check something off your list. It will all add up but sometimes it's an accomplishment to just get to class on time."

For this Hawaii native, Lincoln and UNL are feeling like home. "People are really nice and friendly, the city is a great value, and there are great restaurants and a variety of things to do. When it is nice out you can walk everywhere and the city of Omaha isn't far away either." But after being away from home for several years, Aleksandra wanted to spend the summer in Hawaii. "I made it happen. I found a distance reading course online that I could take to not get behind the other first year students and I was able to make it work." During the summer, Aleksandra will be lecturing calculus 1 at the University of Hawaii and assisting in a geometry course at a local high school. Aleksandra's takeaway: "Be self-confident. Go for what you want and don't be afraid to ask. And create some fun to make it though the hard days."

Tonya Gladney, doctoral candidate in sociology, reflects on how she landed her dream job

Tanya Gladney

(April 2007) Tanya Gladney, a doctoral candidate in sociology from Mississippi, laughs when reflecting on her last four years at UNL and says, "I came single and am leaving single!" She quickly adds, though, "It was all by choice. I came here to study and do my work. I had social avenues through church and my department, but I was primarily interested in completing my degree." Tanya's focus is not unlike that of other graduate students, but may be slightly more intense because she resigned from her job of eleven years with State Capitol Police in Jackson, Mississippi, to attend graduate school full time.

Tanya's research interests are race and ethnicity, and crime and deviance, with a particular focus on urban neighborhoods. She found great research, resources and a supportive environment in the sociology doctoral program at UNL. The resources and support she was attracted to when she started considering UNL did not disappoint. One program in particular, UNL's Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), was significant in helping her accomplish her goals and land her dream job for next fall.

The PFF program involves two components: a for-credit course and mentoring. The PFF class was helpful to Tanya in preparing a strong curriculum vitae, cover letter, teaching portfolio and teaching and research statements. "The most valuable discussions were those about the three areas in academia: research, teaching and service and the importance of this order and how it differs at different types of colleges and universities." Tanya's mentor was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. They met monthly and Tanya was able to shadow experienced faculty at an urban campus, observe undergraduate sociology classes, and met with new faculty members. She observed what it would be like to be a new faculty member, managing classes and working on tenure. "My experiences at UNO helped me to think more critically about what type of position I wanted when I finished my degree."

All of Tanya's preparation paid off when she secured a faculty position in the department of sociology and criminal justice at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of her unique background on the police force, Tanya also will be serving as the director of the law enforcement program. "The job posting was a perfect fit and I liked the mission of a Jesuit institution. Of course, now that I've landed my dream job, I have to finish my dissertation. Luckily, this is great motivation."

Although while at UNL, Tanya was not very involved with groups on campus, she did connect with faculty and other graduate students. "They helped with the transition from Mississippi and establishing additional networks in Lincoln," Tanya says, but recommends that graduate students find a way to get involved in the community and campus organizations. Still, one of Tanya's favorite pastimes while a student was catching a movie by herself on Friday nights at the Ross or Douglas Theatre, and indulging in buttery popcorn. "I'll be taking full advantage of the Rec Center at the University of St. Thomas and getting back in shape," Tanya laughs.

Willie Hughes, Florida native and virology Ph.D. student, discusses his first year of grad school in the Midwest

Willie Hughes

(March 2007) Willie Hughes knew at age 15 that he was destined to do great things in the field of science. It started in seventh grade when he realized he really enjoyed and excelled in math and science. Then he watched the 1995 movie Outbreak staring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo and became interested in viruses. After doing some research and discovering that a large number of people in his own community and the world were affected by viruses and mutations of viruses, like those that lead to sexually transmitted diseases, Willie decided to become a viral epidemiologist.

While an undergraduate at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, Willie studied molecular biology. "Although the technology and facilities were underfunded and not very up-to-date at Stetson, the theory was there and I got great preparation for a Ph.D. program," Willie said. Because he was already focused in his research interests, narrowing down programs to which to apply was not as difficult as making the decision of where to attend. "The most important factor was the opportunity to study multiple viral systems, in particular retroviruses. The financial package was second, and location third," Willie said. In the end, Nebraska offered the whole package—the best opportunities for research and facilities, best financial package including a National Institutes of Health fellowship, and a good Midwest location. Meeting with current graduate students and faculty and seeing the facilities and community during his campus visit also gave Willie the confidence that Nebraska was the best place to do his doctoral work.

Although the cold temperatures of February in Nebraska may have given any Floridian a shock, Willie says, "I just wear more clothes and I'm planning to try ice skating." The weather is usually a small point of contention when the majority of any graduate student's time is spent on research and work. During the fall semester, Willie rotated among three labs in preparation before choosing one to join in the spring. "It was a big decision, like picking your supervisory committee. Each [lab] has its own dynamics and formalities. Older students helped give me insight and I called my mentor from Stetson to talk over the options before I decided." After choosing which lab to complete his doctoral work in the Nebraska Virology Center, Willie is getting settled and learning about other opportunities on campus. For example, he attended Black Love Night, a jazz and poetry reading program hosted by the Black Graduate Student Association and is participating in a grant writing workshop offered by the Office of Research.

Other things like basketball at the Campus Recreation Center, his hobby of working on cars, and reading (about science) keep Willie busy, too. As the first in his family to earn a bachelor's degree, the first to continue on to graduate school and the youngest member of a large family, leaving home was not easy, but Willie says, "I talk to my family, my nieces and nephews as much as I can and I'll get back for spring break and holidays. This is really just the beginning of my travels."

Justin Okimi, MBA student, discusses transitions from Canada to the U.S. and from a small to a large institution

Justin Okimi

(February 2007) When Justin Okimi came from Canada to Nebraska to begin his MBA program this spring, the transition to the United States was not difficult. He had been in the U.S. for the last five years completing his bachelor's degree in English and mathematics at Union College, a church-affiliated undergraduate institution in Lincoln. But that college was smaller than UNL — a lot smaller — and his challenge now was to make the adjustment to a much larger, public research institution. "It feels big," says Justin, "but my experience has been good so far."

Justin found particularly helpful both the international student orientation the Friday before classes began and the MBA orientation offered by the College of Business. The International Student and Scholar Office was able to help him navigate the university, giving him a tour of the campus, teaching him about available resources and advising him on a number of little but critical things, like purchasing a parking pass and figuring out where to park. Justin says, however, "In all honesty, I was still a little disoriented and had to just get out and do some exploring on my own." Justin used his free time walking around the campus, asking for tours of buildings like the Campus Recreation Center, and spending time in the Union.

Making friends and meeting people, much easier and requiring little effort at a smaller school, was a different experience as a graduate student at a larger school. Also, starting course work in spring semester rather than during the traditional fall semester presented challenges. "Everyone assumes you have been here since August. Unless I asked questions, people didn't explain the NCard, WAM, Blackboard, and other campus lingo," Justin says. Because graduate education is set up to be more of an individual learning experience and fellow students tend to have more demands on their time, like work and family obligations, Justin found that uncovering answers took some work. Luckily, the other "spring-starters" Justin met at the MBA orientation have become sources of information and more than friendly faces.

As for the transition to the U.S. five years earlier, Justin comments, "The U.S. was a close neighbor and it wasn't too overwhelming, but I wasn't prepared to become a visible minority. I felt welcomed but I just became more culturally aware." When talking specifically about the Midwest he refers to people and approachability. He says, "People might seem less approachable than in Canada, but [here] I ride the bus with my professors in the morning. And I think it is more that the professors might not want to be called approachable, but they definitely are."

In five weeks, Justin has become much more familiar, comfortable and even knowledgeable about UNL. He is currently employed as a graduate assistant in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies, helping the recruitment team give tours to prospective students and sharing his transition experiences with students who may face similar challenges in adjusting to new places, new people and new ways of doing things.

John Carrasco III, first-year MFA student, gets beyond boring

John Carrasco III

(December/January 2006) "I wouldn't describe myself as interesting or even outgoing, but when it comes to my work, I guess I am." And in John's experience in applying to graduate programs, highlighting the uniqueness of his work and showing the outgoing side of his personality were important to getting admitted to UNL and to his success as an artist.

John Carrasco III, a first-year master of fine arts student, is a sculptor from Texas. While working on the support staff in a nationally known architecture firm in New England, he acquired an appreciation for aesthetics and for truly quality work. It was during that time he decided to return to school and finish his bachelor of fine arts degree. From there he knew he wanted to pursue graduate education. He applied to five graduate programs last spring and received verbal offers from all of them less than two weeks after submitting his application materials. "I was very fortunate," says John. Still, he describes the time he waited for letters of offer as a "distracting anxiety." What was it about his applications that resulted in such an outstanding response?

In John's view, his results can be explained by "good photos of my work and those that are representative of me — and I took a class about how to write a cover letter and present a portfolio." Indeed, preparation is important, but the only way to let the admissions committee know who you are and why you belong in a program is to communicate clearly and grab their attention with your application materials. John did just that and, while he tends to be an introvert, has discovered he can be extraverted when necessary. His work has been accepted in over a dozen exhibitions, received numerous awards and most recently has been displayed at local galleries. "If I wasn't a little outgoing, none of this would have happened. I am not normally outgoing, I literally have to put on a game face and walk into galleries and show them my work — try to be interesting!"

Frail by John Carrasco III
John's sculpture The Frail will be shown at the Hand Crafted Juried Exhibition in North Carolina in December.

It's working. He will show his sculpture "The Frail" at the Hand Crafted Juried Exhibition in North Carolina in December. And it comes as no surprise that John will be fully funded for his trip next month. "I even got a little more outgoing and asked my department chair for travel money." In the end, John says, "this is all good practice for bigger venues, bigger projects and more people to recognize my work."

Given that the majority of John's time each week is spent teaching, taking classes, or working in the studio, it's easy to see why he might relish those slow, but rare, moments of life outside school and work that he calls boring. But listen to John describe his first semester: "UNL has been a great experience. I'm teaching an introductory sculpture class. I have my own studio space, materials are easily accessible, and the faculty and students have made a big difference. It's all very exciting and motivating." Pretty lively stuff for a guy who thinks he's boring.

Katrina Christiansen, engineering master's student, weighs the payoffs of academia and industry

Katrina Christiansen

(November 2006) How many students can say they were awarded a travel grant to attend a professional conference at which there was "beer everywhere" — especially in the paper and poster sessions? That's how second-year master's student in Biological Systems Engineering, Katrina Christiansen, describes her latest professional conference, the 2006 World Grain Summit in San Francisco. UNL awarded Katrina a travel grant in addition to a two-year research assistantship and a one-year fellowship to help offset the costs of being in graduate school.

In fact, Katrina isn't shy about discussing the economics of being a talented student in engineering who chooses to attend graduate school rather than take a job in industry. "We are talking about a $13,000 stipend compared to offers of $45,000 or more right out of my bachelor's degree," says Katrina. She goes on to say, however, that during her senior year she knew that advanced education was for her. In spring 2005, Dr. Curtis Weller, Katrina's current advisor, gave a presentation during one of her classes about drought resistance and yields. "It was something economical, valuable to the community. I knew I wanted to do more research."

After graduating with her B.S. in biological systems engineering from UNL in May 2005, she began graduate work the following summer. On November 28, Katrina will defend her master's thesis, "Parameters Affecting Lipid Extraction from Grain Sorghum," and will graduate with her master's degree in December — a timeline of less than two years. With a job secured in plant/process engineering starting the first of the year, Katrina is looking forward to the "invaluable" experience of working in industry.

And money? Offers for a talented engineer with a master's degree started just a little under $60,000, with a signing bonus. "Don't worry," Katrina laughs, "my advisor told me — and I know — don't get a lifestyle when working because I am planning to come back and do a Ph.D." Katrina became convinced that she loves to teach after serving as a TA for the Introduction to Biological Systems Engineering course last fall. She plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor of engineering. "I just want my students to know how lucky they will be to have a female professor. My department has been great, great staff and professors, real role models."

In less than two years, Katrina has been a research and teaching assistant, received a fellowship, conducted her own research, written a thesis, landed a great position in industry, and has been assured of her life goals. Next year she'll be busy planning a wedding and, of course, getting the industry experience she needs for the next phase in the life of a talented engineer.

Christine Stewart-Nuñez, Ph.D. candidate, talks about being ABD, all but dissertation

Christine Stewart-Nunez

(October 2006) Christine Stewart-Nuñez can describe her experience as a doctoral student at UNL in one word, and not just because she is an English major. "It was unbelievable," Christine says. "The faculty is amazing. I was able to create an individualized program of study, had a supervisory committee that supported me, and I could negotiate my coursework in my collateral field to complement my study of literature."

While Christine mostly talks about her experience in the English department and her collateral field, women's and gender studies, she is also quick to praise UNL and the community of Lincoln. "In general, UNL offers professional development, training in cross-disciplines and I felt welcomed. And the city of Lincoln is a great place to be a graduate student in, enough to do when you need a break, but not too much distraction that you won't ever get finished," she jokes.

But back to being ABD, All But Dissertation. This period of time can usually be very stressful for students as they struggle to finish their research, prepare for their defense, and embark on their job search, all while maintaining funding. For Christine, however, the time has been a little less stressful due to a large fellowship. Stewart-Nuñez was one of three students to receive the UNL Presidential Fellowship of $16,500, which provides a stipend for students to study during their last year of the doctorate. The award has allowed Christine to focus on her research, submit articles for publication, and look for a position in academia without the crunch of teaching classes. It's not that Christine does not enjoy teaching, as she has taught over 8 sections of English courses at UNL, but the award has given her a unique opportunity.

In fact, Christine's second publication, a chapbook titled Unbound & Branded, is due out in November. This ekphrastic series (ekphrasis is a word of Greek origin that means the literary representation of visual art) was inspired by a forty-page portfolio of artists responding to pop-culture icon Kate Moss in the September 2003 issue of W Magazine. Additionally, she published, The Love of Unreal Things which features poems based on the life of Caterina Benincasa, better known as Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century Italian visionary and saint renowned for her wise counsel and rhetorical expertise. Other successes and highlights during her last several years at UNL include working as an assistant to Poet Laureate Ted Kooser on the project "American Life in Poetry," being a reader for the Prairie Schooner, and starting a family with husband, Juan Abel. "Being a mom has enriched my life, and my (supervisory) committee was very supportive, but I'm glad I waited until I was ABD." With all of her accomplishments, unique experiences, and growth as a scholar it is easy to understand why she chose the word unbelievable.

Mario Callegaro, Ph.D. student in Survey Research and Methodology, excels in a unique program

Mario Callegaro

(September 2006) Meet Mario Callegaro, a student from Italy who plans to be the first Ph.D. graduate from UNL's interdisciplinary Survey Research & Methodology (SRAM). The unique SRAM program was created through a private-sector partnership with Gallup Research Center. In fact, degree programs in the field of survey research and methodology are relatively new; only two other universities in the United States have similar doctoral programs. Upon graduation in December of 2006, Mario plans to pursue a career in the United States either in academia, most likely teaching research methods and design and data collection, or in the private sector at a large survey research company.

Listing all of Mario's accomplishments during his tenure at UNL would be lengthy, but one in particular he will never forget. This summer, at the American Statistical Association's Presidential Awards ceremony, Mario accepted the Edward C. Bryant Scholarship for Outstanding Graduate Student in Survey Statistics. The research scholarship is the association's highest award and has been given to only one student each year since 1996. Previous recipients have attended America's elite universities and top statistics programs.

Mario says, "UNL is a good environment for research. Our professors always encouraged us to work on our research ideas and present papers at conferences." In the SRAM program, students meet every other week in a program called Pro-Seminar, short for professional seminar. Here students practice upcoming presentations for conferences, discuss topics and exchange ideas. Guest speakers are frequent, as well, some national, others from graduate studies and even past master's students. "UNL feels like a small university, well organized and very efficient. New students can feel safe here." Mario completed his bachelor's degree in sociology at the University of Trento, Italy, and his MS in survey research and methodology at UNL.

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