Yani Aguilar hoped of coming to the DREAMBIG Academy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business ever since she heard about the program from her College Possible mentor. With ambition to be a business leader of tomorrow, she knew she needed to start on that path today.
“When I heard of DREAMBIG, I immediately became interested. I have goals I set for myself and I know what I want in life. I knew this could be a good experience for me to see what opportunities are available and how I can connect with not just my peers but also mentors and professional business leaders,” explained Aguilar, a rising senior at Ralston High School in Ralston, Nebraska.
Aguilar attended the weeklong program with preconceived notions of college as just a stepping-stone to a career. She quickly learned of the vast amount of opportunities college could offer students during their time here.
“My perception of college broadly changed because I learned I didn’t just have to study, but I could also focus on developing myself. During DREAMBIG, we did a bunch of activities that taught me about my strengths and diversity. That knowledge is not just school-related, but something that sticks with you for your own personal growth,” she said.
From her first day in the academy, Aguilar connected with one of the student mentors in the program, Elizabeth Byrnes, a junior sociology and communication studies major. After listening to Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Peer, professor of military science, speak at DREAMBIG, Aguilar turned to Byrnes for guidance on how she felt.
“After listening to Jamie speak, I got very emotional because it helped me realize some things. It was important learning not only what opportunities I have, but also the importance of leadership and mental health. Later I was talking to Elizabeth about the same topics and she helped me deal with how I was feeling. The words she said to me were influential and will stick with me beyond this program,” said Aguilar.
As a Ralston native herself, Byrnes related to how Aguilar felt and her position in life. With their similar high school backgrounds, Byrnes acted as the voice in the back of Aguilar’s head that kept pushing her.
“Yani and I discussed how she wants to become a better leader, to be somebody who inspires people the way people inspired her during DREAMBIG,” Byrnes said. “Yani saw her comfort zone and where she needed to improve. She realized what work needed to be done, and it overwhelmed her briefly. I was somebody who could listen and tell her it's going to be okay. I had her looking at what she is doing now, what experience she has and what experience she is bound to get. I was able to be that coach in the background telling her, ‘Hey, you can do it. Keep going, keep going,’” said Byrnes.
Along with learning more about herself, Aguilar expanded her network and connected with different business and community leaders, such as Lizz Whitacre, ’17, CEO of Pawlytics, a cloud-based software for animal shelters, during a panel discussion. Even with the program’s packed schedule, the students had moments to slow things down and open up to the group, learning more about one another, a welcomed surprise to Aguilar.
“The environment was really nice and it felt like home. Once one person opened up, the rest of us wanted to do it as well because they offered that opportunity for us. It's great how that was established first because that helped us connect and find people who can relate to you. I met Nayely, who also came from my home country of Guatemala, with a similar situation to mine where she came to the U.S. when she was a kid. Each person shared something about themselves and that helped me see how it's easier to connect with people than you may think,” she explained.
The program concluded with a business pitch competition, which the students worked on throughout the week. Aguilar and her teammates took home the crowd favorite with their idea WireLess, a wireless charging attachment for smartphones. With new perspectives gained and connections made, she leaves the program more confident in her abilities to lead the future of business.
“DREAMBIG knew how to get you out of your comfort zone. Almost every single speaker or presentation we had touched on the same topic of getting out of your comfort zone and how to connect to people through diversity. Everything we did throughout the week helped open my eyes to life after high school because there are more opportunities out there I didn't know about and those opportunities are important,” she said.
Students graduating high school in May 2021 can be nominated for the next DREAMBIG Academy through an online form. Learn more or nominate someone for the experience at https://business.unl.edu/dreambig