Jack's Insights March 2018

By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Dr. Jack Whittier

During my interview for this position in early 2014, a key point of discussion from the faculty at the Center revolved around graduate student training. One impediment to training graduate students was available short- and long-term furnished housing. The faculty noted the challenge of helping their students fully immerse themselves in graduate school research at the Panhandle while dividing their graduate program between blocks of time doing classwork in Lincoln. 

In the months following my arrival as Director, and as part of our five-year external program review in 2015, we identified three ways to increase graduate student training at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC).  They are: 1) incorporate as many on-line classes as practical into our Panhandle graduate students’ curricula; 2) increase available graduate student stipend funding opportunities through grants, contracts and foundation donations; and 3) develop and implement a plan for student housing on our PHREC campus in Scottsbluff.

In this month’s “Jack’s Insights” I’ll report where we are in our quest to: “Expand graduate student resident months at PHREC to at least 12 months (for M.S. students) and 24 months (for Ph.D. students) of the total time in their graduate programs.” Specifically, I am reporting on our housing initiative.

If you have been to PHREC this week, you have seen that excavation is underway for foundations of two six-bedroom housing units. These units will be on the south side of our front parking lot between the Center (i.e. the Elliot Building) and the State Patrol building. Coincidently, this is, approximately, where the former Hiram Scott College dormitories once were.

To arrive at this point, we have done extensive study and exploration of housing options. We explored several options, in the community, including Twin Cities Development options, or renovating the upstairs west wing of the Elliot Building where the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Nursing Program was housed before it moved to the Harms Center. Each of these studies led us to decide the best option was to build housing on our campus. This decision was extensively vetted with our Panhandle Director’s External Advisory Council, a group of 15 local citizens from various backgrounds, businesses and expertise areas.

Having housing on our campus will provide close association between graduate students and their faculty advisors and research plots and labs. Since some of our students will be international students without automobiles, this proximity is important.

We are using local businesses for the construction. Rusch's General Contracting, LLC, is the general contractor, Family Built Homes in Gering will build the housing units in their factory, Studio 120 Engineering and Baker and Associates are the architects and engineers. All other sub-contractors are local. We believe this is an important aspect of our presence in the community – and we know that great businesses are readily available to accomplish our goal.

Each of the two units is a 2,500-square-foot, single-story structure. Each consists of six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a kitchen-commons area, and on-site laundry area. This will accommodate 12 students.  These units will also be available, based on occupancy, for short-term stays by Lincoln faculty. Also, we already have interest from several visiting scholars at international universities to come to PHREC to work with our faculty on short-term sabbatical opportunities. 

So one immediate question you may be asking is, “How will this be funded?”  A second logical question is, “With declining university budgets, why now?”  Here is our answer: No state-appropriated (tax) funds will be used for this building project. Most of the funds have been secured from funds already in place and available for this need.  For example, when the Nursing School was housed at the Elliot Building, the rent was accumulated and has been held in an account for purposes such as this.

In addition, when Educational Service Unit 13 rented portions of our building while their campus was being upgraded, the rental revenue also went into this account. This funding pool also includes some University of Nebraska Foundation funds specifically designated for Panhandle projects.

To furnish the housing units, a campaign is currently underway through the University of Nebraska Foundation led by Darla Heggem. Darla is now officed at PHREC and can be contacted at darla.heggem@nufoundation.org or 308-641-1446 if you would like to contribute.

Writing this article made me reflect back on my own journey through graduate school. In mid-August 1982, Robynn and I drove away from Cache Valley, Utah, to begin our adventure in graduate school at the University of Nebraska. I had been fortunate enough to be accepted into a graduate program with a noted range livestock nutritionist named Dr. Don Clanton. Since Don was located off-campus at the North Platte Station (now the West Central Research and Extension Center), Robynn and I spent our time, when not in classes in Lincoln, living in housing provided for graduate students on the Station.

Our experience of living on the Station in student housing in close proximity to where my research was conducted, in large measure, set the course for my career. This allowed me to have a close association with my PhD advisor and other researchers from a wide breadth of disciplines at the Station.

Living at an off-campus site also provided me with the opportunity to interact with a large number of cattle producers and range managers around North Platte and in the Sandhills due to Dr. Clanton’s work and reputation. But perhaps most notably, this was where I feel in love with Nebraska; so  later in my career, when the opportunity came to return to Nebraska at an off-campus Research and Extension Center, I jumped at the chance.

It is our hope that by providing housing opportunities for graduate students, visiting scholars, interns and others at PHREC, we will continue to build excitement and a reputation in the Panhandle where those who come will want to stay or come back.

Stop by and see what is happening at the Center; you are always welcome.