Young Nebraska leaders go to Washington

Young Nebraska leaders go to Washington

UNO's Civic Leadership Program helps high schoolers become leaders

Posted: Tue, Apr 29, 2014

A Nebraska Congressman keeps a bed in his office in Washington, D.C.?

That surprised some young Nebraska eyes.

"Walking into (Rep.) Lee Terry's office, it was just a weird feeling because you don't know how to react or what to say or what questions to ask," said Niko Oropeza, a senior this past year at Omaha South High who wants to be a journalist someday.

"We had a lot of questions, and Lee Terry answered every one of them. We got to ask him about Nebraska and what he does, and we learned that he actually lives in his office when he's there – and seeing him pulling down his bed and actually showing it to us was weird."

Niko was one of the high school students in last year's Nebraska Civic Leadership Program, sponsored by UNO. The program takes Nebraska kids from disadvantaged areas and gets them excited about government and leadership and the political process through hands-on experiences.

The students travel with teachers to government buildings and shake hands with mayors and Congressmen and other government leaders. 

"You get to learn what it's all about – what government really is like," Niko says.

The Congressman was friendly. So were the pigeons along the Smithsonian sidewalks (they were a little too friendly, he says – one swooped down and startled him). Riding the subway everywhere was a first.

Each year, students like Niko are selected for their leadership skills and interest in government. They're part of the program for a year. In the summer, they take classes at UNO taught by political science professors and live in the dorms for a few days before the finale – flying to the nation's capital.

This program lasts for one year so that the students receive much teaching in the classroom before they experience their government first-hand through trips to Omaha and Lincoln and Washington, D.C. The main reason for this training is to engage students so that they will become active in their community and potentially choose to work in public service.

The program, in its fourth year, is funded by an anonymous donor and Duane and Phyllis Acklie.

"It was paid for, which is the greatest part I feel," Niko says. "It's something I'd probably never do because I probably never would have afforded that."

Matthew Curtis, dean of students at Omaha South, has accompanied the kids to the nation's capital twice. He's still in touch with some of the kids from the program's first year. He's noticed how the program changes the students. They become better leaders. They're more confident.

 "These are great kids who don't always come from the most financially stable situations, who excel in school, who excel as great character people despite what they go through," Curtis says. "So this program is an opportunity to reward them for making it through those tough times."

UNO, he says, makes the kids "feel like rock stars."

 "It's just a tremendous program for students, for staff. What I really enjoy seeing is when the professors at UNO relate with these high school kids. They love to see these kids grow. They love to be part of this."

Some of these kids didn't plan to go to college before experiencing this program, Curtis says. But after staying in the dorms and living life like college students and hanging out with college students and professors, college often becomes their dream.

"This is an experience that will not only get kids to D.C.," he says, "but it will get kids to college and create that lust and that yearning for a college experience."

Omaha South student Jazmin Samano said the program taught her not be scared to travel far from home. (In D.C., she also took her first subway ride.) She loved the Smithsonian, especially the Holocaust Museum. 

"It was heartbreaking to see what they had to go through."

She loved seeing the House of Representatives in action. And there was a feeling she got walking up the steps of the Capitol Building, she says, that was "unexplainable."

"It was such a good feeling. You see it on the news and TV, and it's such a great experience to actually be there."

Says Niko: "It changed me. It taught me to be a better leader and to take any opportunity you get in life."

Student Support and Faculty Support are two priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year. If you would like to help promising students like Niko and Jazmin experience the Civic Leadership Program at UNO, please contact the foundation's Mary Bernier at 800-432-3216.