UNL Focus Group

University of Nebraska-Lincoln focus group
UNL Focus Group: Sense of Place, Work Ethic Make Nebraska Attractive

Nebraskans are strong individualists, have a legendary work ethic and are welcoming and helpful. But it's the "sense of place" that evokes the admiration of a focus group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students and graduates and it's the single characteristic that would be most likely to keep them in the state.

"People care about more than just themselves here," said Josh Roos, a recent UNL graduate. "It's just a good place to be."

Graduate student Ryan Downing said "there seems to be a sense of family, home or familiarity anywhere you go in Nebraska - even in the larger cities." He said people in Nebraska are closely-connected and it doesn't take long before conversations lead to those connections. It is important to keep pursuing other opportunities, both personal and professional, for networking and making friends, Downing said, but he believes the sense of familiarity in Nebraska makes it easier to network.

Focus group participants agreed that Nebraskans aren't afraid of working hard, either for themselves or for others. And the group agreed that the work ethic helps drive the state's economy.

Will You Stay or Leave?
Carlos Lopez, though not a native Nebraskan, will start a job with a privately-owned Lincoln company after he graduates from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln - shortly after this magazine is published in May 2009. Although he interviewed nationwide, he liked the company's owners, who told him they located the company in Lincoln because they grew to love the city. Lopez also found the company to be more flexible and have less of a high-pressure environment than other companies with which he interviewed.

Many of the other focus group participants intend to stay in Nebraska if they're able to find employment; if not Nebraska, they plan to stay in the Midwest. Kevin Jones, a graduate student, said he believes there are good jobs in he Midwest, but there are more elsewhere. "In the end, you have to follow what you want to do and find a nice balance between sacrificing what you want in a job or what you want in a place to live and find some sort of happy medium," he said.

Downing, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, said his desire to use his second language in a career may take him to a coastal city like Miami, Houston or Los Angeles. He hopes to work for a public relations or marketing firm that seeks out and retains Hispanic or Latin clientele. However, his long-range plan is to build a successful career, then eventually return to Nebraska to teach. "I still anticipate feeling a pull back to Nebraska at some point in my life," he said.

Jacob Varvel, also a graduate student, said he plans to go where the job is, but he hopes to remain in the Great Plains area. "It's really a quality-of-life issue - if you go maybe to the edges of the country, you're not going to find that sort of community that you might find in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota or any of those states," he said.

The state government needs to encourage these things that invite companies to come and build and grow and stay here and build jobs that are stable.

Phil Boll said that after he earns his graduate degree, he and his wife plan to move to the Omaha area, or perhaps Kansas City or another, larger Midwest city. They would like to remain in the Midwest, he said, because "we really fit better in the Midwest than the East coast." However, Boll said it will come down to where he's able to find a job.

Nkem Kalu is working on a Ph.D. in political science, and was the only international student in the focus group. Although she was born and raised in Nigeria, she was educated in Zambia. She came to Lincoln when she was 16 to begin her studies at UNL. "My current academic program is directed toward community development in rural parts of the developing world," she said, so she expects to move out of the United States following completion of her doctorate. But she is keeping an open mind. "Should things change, then chances are I'd be looking for placement in Nebraska or somewhere not particularly far," she said. "The last seven years have been an opportunity for me to build a life, a network and a home base out of Lincoln, Nebraska."

Economic Drivers
Nebraska's economy is driven by the agriculture industry, Downing said.

"That's the elephant in the room, basically; everyone knows that," he said. "We don't want to make it an easy answer, but that's what generates the economy. It's all still very much tied into that work ethic and the people who are raised on farms, generations of farmers and businesses, too," he said. Small businesses in small towns also help hold up the state, he added.

"If you took away farming, or the agriculture industry, you'd have a huge gap in the state," Boll said.
Schools are also economic drivers in Nebraska, Jones said. Nebraska has many universities, colleges and community colleges and they employ large numbers of people. Additionally, Jones said the thousands of students who attend the state's institutions of higher learning must have part-time jobs. "That's a lot of money that's getting pushed through," he said. "That's a big chunk of the economy there, I think."

Downing said the state's privately-owned corporations may not be huge by national standards, but they are anchors of employment in the Nebraska cities where they exist. These companies "seem to be more of a fit for Nebraska because they are not huge companies and they still value the people who live there," he said.

Expectations of State Government
Nebraska's logical role in the global economy is agriculture, Roos said. "There are a few certain things that are absolutely needed for survival before everything else. And one of them, obviously, is food." Roos said prices on technology and such are going to fluctuate, but people are always going to need food. "That's a pretty essential role that we have," he added.

"Nebraska is only beginning to discover the global economy and the fact that she can be a player in the global economy," Kalu said. A large number of international students have chosen to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for its strong programs in biological sciences, agriculture and business, and UNL has the support system to offer these students the help they may need, she said.

The university's educational partnerships and exchange programs with universities throughout the world are bringing different perspectives and expanding the learning experience of students here, she said. These are partnerships that create a platform for future collaborations. "It is still in its preliminary stages, but there is a discovery taking place," she said.

Nebraska as a Global Player
This focus group expects Nebraska's state government to use tax dollars responsibly and do a better job of keeping people in greater Nebraska informed about how dollars are being used.

Downing, who is from the southwest part of the state, said "many people around (Lincoln) are more aware that things are clicking along the way they should be. But I think there needs to be more information sent out to the western part of the state...I think it would help them to trust their government more." He would like elected officials to be active in the government, pay attention to and respond to their constituents and acknowledge that there is another, larger part of the state off to the west.

The western part of Nebraska is somewhat disconnected from the way the state government works and the way it works for the people who live in the state, Jones said. Also from the southwest part of Nebraska, Jones said "we feel a little left out as citizens of the state."

From a different perspective, Boll said he doesn't like the debate between east and west, "because we depend on each other. But unfortunately, it exists. Sometimes you get in this - you know - the business in Omaha wants their interests and the people in Scottsbluff want theirs, but we are so dependent on each other!"

Boll added that Nebraska doesn't have a lot of the natural attractions offered by states with mountains and oceans, but "we do have a hard work atmosphere. We do have stability. We generally have a fairly low unemployment," he said. "The state government needs to encourage these things that invite companies to come and build and grow and stay here and build jobs that are stable."

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska held a focus group discussion with seven University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and undergraduate students on February 2, 2009. Participating: Phil Boll, Blair; Ryan Downing, Stratton; Kevin Jones, Cambridge; Nkem Kalu, Nigeria; Carlos Lopez, Washington; Josh Roos, Lincoln; and Jacob Varvel, Lincoln. Boll, Downing, Jones, Roos and Varvel have lived their entire lives in Nebraska; Kalu has been in Nebraska for seven years; and Lopez has lived in Nebraska for six years.