Inspiring the future of Nebraska Workforce Development

Pictured: Joanne Li is the chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

You may not be familiar with Horatio Alger, but because of him, you are familiar with bootstraps.

Through the mid- and late-1800s, Alger authored rags-to-riches tales that inspired generations to pull themselves up "by their bootstraps" from impoverished backgrounds and create a better life for themselves through hard work.

While the core of his lesson remains relevant, the world and socioeconomic environment that Alger and his characters inhabited is very different from the world we know today.

To make a better life for yourself today, sheer willpower is not enough. Any career is made stronger by building skills in science, technology, engineering, and math to be competitive in the labor market, and developing the critical, independent thinking that comes from studying the arts and humanities. Without financial assistance, this is simply not possible for many people across the country.

More than a third of students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha are classified as Pell grant eligible, 4 out of every 10 students are first generation college students with many who are the first members of their family to seek a four-year degree, and nearly 25% qualify for the Nebraska Promise program - meaning their parents' combined income is less than $60,000 per year. Half of our students require substantial financial help; but this need does not diminish their hunger, desire, and drive for a better future. This feeling is abundant in the young people in our community and our state.

I know the struggles these students face very well, because I am a product of the scholarships and financial assistance that helped me in my own journey as a first-generation student from Hong Kong, and their journeys resonate with me.

For leaders and educators in Nebraska to truly honor the commitment of the hardworking learners in our state and inspire the future of workforce development, we need to rethink what it means for someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Because many students don't have bootstraps to begin with, we also need to analyze the role our universities play in lifting them up.

To gain true momentum in our state's workforce development efforts, we need to acknowledge that many people need that assistance. We must use every ounce of energy and every resource to ensure a prosperous future is within reach, because the best economic development demands undivided attention is to develop the people from within.

What should this relationship look like in practice for a university in Nebraska?

At UNO, it means enhancing access and affordability to higher education through paid internships and scholarships. It means thoughtful financial strategies to minimize if not eliminate student debts. It means agile academic programs that match students' strengths and aptitude to meet the needs of our state in strategic areas, and personal intellectual growth and fulfilment. It means partnerships with area businesses to ensure that our community continues to invest in our students. It means hands-on service-learning experiences that add depth to the college experience and benefit the community. It means a fierce institutional commitment to ensure students complete their degrees, crossing the finish in the most optimal way and timely fashion.

It also requires UNO to build stronger retention of students and demonstrate care and attention with each one of our students. Our goal is simple: promising students to graduate with minimal debt and be placed into a career they are passionate about.

Bootstraps have always been a metaphor for the tools to attain a better life. As leaders, we must commit to all Nebraskans that we will make sure those bootstraps are within reach so they can lift themselves up and write their own stories.

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The Aksarben Foundation has proudly partnered with the Horatio Alger Association since 2006 to provide scholarships for Nebraska and western Iowa students to continue their education. In 2019, modifications were made to the Aksarben | Horatio Alger Scholarship so that students may attend the Nebraska college or university of their choice.

Education is the foundation of all workforce development and Aksarben strives to retain the next generation of Nebraska business and thought leaders right here at home. Every cent of the Aksarben | Horatio Alger Scholarship is provided through the generosity of Aksarben donors. We are proud of this partnership and of the student success stories that have been written because of this important work.

If you would like to donate to support the Aksarben Scholarship Program, please click the "Donate" button or call 402.554.9600.