As a former football coach at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, Mark Barrera missed working with underrepresented youth. When the opportunity arose again with the DREAMBIG Academy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, he happily stepped up to lead the program in addition to his duties as the assistant director of recruitment technology at the College of Business.
“I wanted to lead the DREAMBIG Academy because I coached for nearly five years and understand the importance of working with underrepresented youth. As someone who is very proud to come from an interracial family, I know these students need to feel like they belong at the University, like they fit. At the academy, they will get a better understanding of their own strengths, the different areas of business and what the University of Nebraska offers,” explained Barrera.
The idea for the academy started with former dean of the College of Business, Dr. Donde Plowman, asking Dr. D’vee Buss, assistant dean for undergraduate programs, about starting a summer camp for high school students that focused entirely around underrepresented students. Plowman and Buss brainstormed with others at the college and in the community, and the inaugural DREAMBIG Academy kicked off in 2012.
“We wanted to figure out a way to bring high school students to campus and introduce them to the various fields of business. We put together a team of faculty, staff, students, as well as individuals from other offices and the community to brainstorm. We asked them what this academy would look like if we were to pursue it. We wanted to figure out how to help these students further dream about their future and that's where the name came from – we wanted them to dream big,” explained Buss.
Since its inception, the academy brought nearly 300 high school students from more than 40 towns and 65 high schools in Nebraska to campus for the week-long program. Seventy-five percent of the high school attendees became first-generation college students with 72 percent qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program in high school. All academy participants qualify for the Nebraska Emerging Leaders Scholarship of $2,000 if they complete the program and meet academic requirements during their senior year of high school. With the academy’s focus on underrepresented students, Barrera understands how students who attend the academy may feel.
“DREAMBIG Academy allows the attendees to feel like a college student. They can experience residence hall life, attend different academy classes and eat in the cafeteria. They meet other college students who serve as mentors during the academy so they can ask questions and get candid answers from a peer. They also talk to community and college leaders to learn more about the different areas of business. Most importantly, they find out what going to college is like and know it is possible,” Barrera said.
The Council of Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) District VI recognized the DREAMBIG Academy with top awards the last three years. CASE recognized the program’s excellence in the diversity programs category.
Buss noted the timeless importance of sponsors and donors who make the free program possible. Although the activities over the years may have changed, she believes the core of the academy still reigns true to this day.
“We couldn't do the academy without our supporters, including alumni and others who care about such passions that we're able to help students continue to dream big,” said Buss. “Over the years, we've found different ways to help them understand business and continued to modify how we do our team building. We haven't changed the integrity of the main components of the program, but more the delivery of those components and ways of energizing the students.”
The program this year brings new opportunities for students, including a panel discussion with community business leaders and interaction with Nebraska Athletics. Barrera draws excitement as the program nears in the upcoming weeks.
“There's a lot of buzz with DREAMBIG this year as we are trying out some new things. We'll give students an understanding of what education can do for them. Overall, it’s an opportunity for them to experience being a college student. We want them to see the university is a safe place where they can feel at home and be part of a family here,” said Barrera.
To learn more about the DREAMBIG Academy, visit: https://business.unl.edu/dreambig