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Education
editor's pick topical
NU becoming a hot destination for students from Oman

Said Al Barumi is following in the footsteps of his father, an engineer at a petroleum company in Oman, a Middle Eastern country on the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

The 25th-largest oil-producing country in the world, Oman, which is roughly 10 percent larger in geographic size than Nebraska, needs engineers who understand the inner workings of the rigs bobbing above the desert sands.

But Al Barumi’s path to become a mechanical engineer is dramatically different than that of his father. A junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering, Al Barumi is the first in his family to seek a college degree in the United States.

“I love my life here,” said Al Barumi, 22. “I’ve become more independent, I’m socializing more, the people on campus are friendly and helpful. This feels like home. If I’m going to graduate and go back home, an engineering degree is the best way to go.”

Al Barumi is among a growing community of Omanis at NU, which now make up the third-largest population of international students enrolled across the university system.

Only China and India — traditional anchors for international students in Nebraska, as well as the U.S. at large — enrolled more students at NU this year, said Steven Duke, the university's assistant vice president for global strategy and international initiatives.

Last semester, there were 319 Omani students, roughly two-thirds of them male, enrolled across the university system, including 192 at UNL. That outpaces the numbers of students from Vietnam (142), Rwanda (112), Iran (95), South Korea (85) and Mexico (70).

Another 99 Omani students are enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha this year, Duke said, while 25 mostly freshmen and sophomores are studying at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

NU leaders reached out to the Omani sultanate earlier this decade to partner on projects centered on water, agriculture and education. Around the same time as the so-called "Omani spring" in 2011, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said began offering tuition subsidies for the country's best students to attend U.S. universities.

The sultan also agreed to provide students with funds to pay for a year of English language immersion, Duke said.

The blossoming relationship is evident in the data. No Omani students were reported in UNL's 2011 census, but by 2012, 14 students were enrolled in Lincoln.

By 2013, there were 58 Omani students at UNL. Over the next three years, that number grew to 85, then 142 and finally 173 at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, UNL reported.

Duke said the Omani students view an American education, particularly at NU, as a privilege.

“They have gone through a very competitive process in Oman to apply for this scholarship, so there is a lot of pressure to do well and go back to help build their country," he said.

Abdulmajeed Al Naabi, 21, a sophomore chemical engineering major who like Al Barumi wants to work in Oman’s oil and gas industry, said UNL has made him a better English speaker while also allowing him to work toward his career goals.

Where once the difference between his Arabic and English “was as far as the earth and the moon,” Al Naabi said he was able to get a job working in his dormitory’s convenience store as a cashier. Getting outside of his comfort zone helped him bridge the language gap, meet new people, and begin to feel more at home in Lincoln.

Al Naabi has also worked to help mentor other students at UNL while also participating in “Omani Night,” an event put on by Omani students to show off their country’s culture and cuisine to Lincoln.

“This is a good place to live, it’s a good place to study,” he said. “It’s not expensive, it’s safe and there are solid educational offerings.”

Duke said like Al Barumi and Al Naabi, most of the Omani students enrolled at NU are pursuing engineering degrees. Others are pursuing degrees in business, computer science, or geology and earth science — practical experiences in order to land steady jobs back home. The scholarship does not require them to return to their home country.

Musallam Mohammed Said Almashali is something of an outlier.

The UNO student is majoring in international studies — a passion he developed as a boy listening to family and friends discuss and argue politics and international news, despite his engineer father’s efforts to get him to follow suit.

“I thought a lot about that, and finally, I found each person should do what he or she loves,” he said. “When you do something you love, you will succeed and inspire people.”

Almashali said he hopes to one day return to Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, as a policy analyst or adviser. He said he believes the skills he’s learning in Nebraska will put him in a unique position to find employment.

Each of the three Omani students are the first in their families to attend college in the U.S., but each of them said they are also passing on word to friends and family back home about the state with roughly half the population as their home country.

At a college fair in the capital city of Muscat last year, Duke said NU recruiters spoke to more than 2,000 interested Omani students over a three-day period. Other American universities attracted only a trickle of students during that time, he added.

“We were easily the most important American university there in terms of the number of students who wanted to speak with us,” he said. “Nebraska has brand recognition in Oman.”


Legislature
editor's pick topical
Nebraska bill would force disclosures on jailhouse snitches

Ellen Reasonover was a newlywed in 1983 when she was falsely accused, arrested and convicted of the murder of a gas station attendant, just because she had been at his station that day.

The 24-year-old had walked to the station window to get change for a visit to the laundromat, then left. When she heard later the young attendant had been killed, she called police to report descriptions of two men she had seen at the station that morning and the car they were driving.

But the police turned their attention on her, instead. And the case against her appeared to be manipulated to convict her, including the use of two jailhouse informants. Prosecutors hid from the court that the two were given leniency for their testimony.

The two women who Reasonover encountered in the county jail both testified Reasonover had confessed to the murder while they shared cells, and both denied receiving any consideration from the district attorney in exchange for their testimony. The prosecutor didn't correct them, said Michelle Feldman, legislative strategist with the Innocence Project.

"That was the only evidence that was used to convict Ellen," Feldman said. "Without that testimony she wouldn't have been convicted."

Reasonover was one vote away from getting the death penalty; instead she was sentenced to 50 years with no chance for parole. 

In 1993, Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit that investigates wrongful convictions, looked into Reasonover's case and uncovered other withheld information. In 1999, a U.S. District Court judge granted Reasonover’s petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus and vacated her conviction. She was released from prison.

Reasonover is scheduled to testify Thursday on behalf of a bill (LB878) in the Nebraska Legislature, introduced by Judiciary Chairwoman Laura Ebke. The bill would ensure that if jailhouse informants are being used, the defense has the ability to adequately question them and ascertain their reliability. Sometimes it's not easy to find out what deals are being made in an informant's case, Ebke said.

"In any other circumstance, a person has the right to face their accusers and to determine whether or not a jailhouse informant, or whether or not the accuser, is believable," Ebke said. "And really this is just a matter of civil liberties."

State law now allows police to use jailhouse snitches as undercover informants. There had been restrictions on informants, but a bill was introduced in 2009 to reduce gang violence through stiffer penalties, which at the same time repealed a ban on the use of prison inmates and people on probation or parole as informants.

Former Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers had sponsored the law prohibiting prosecutors from using prisoners as undercover agents saying prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to manipulate criminals and ex-cons in legal cases.

Ebke's bill says the interests of justice may be thwarted by unreliable testimony at trial, and safeguards should be provided when the reliability of testimony may be compromised through the receipt or promise of a benefit such as bail consideration, reduction or modification of a sentence, immunity or financial payment. 

Reasonover said the hardest part of serving 16 years for a crime she didn't commit was being taken away from her 2-year-old baby girl, missing her childhood. While her family would bring the toddler to see her, they were separated by glass.

"And she would just cry and reach and try to get to me and she couldn't even touch me. That killed me. That was terrible," she said. 

It affects their relationship to this day, she said. 

Reasonover has put the nightmare in the past because when she talks about it, it still hurts. Almost 20 years later, it can bring tears to her. 

She said she's not bitter. 

"I don't think about it. I don't let them bother me at all. I wasn't bitter when I got out. I was like, they just can go to hell, burn in hell. My faith is strong. I don't let nothing bother me," she said. 

Jailhouse informants are the most unreliable witnesses because they have every reason to make up a story that says somebody confessed, Feldman said. That's why it's so important to disclose the benefits to the judge, jury and the defense, she said.  

A small survey of Nebraska attorneys showed that not disclosing information about the reliability of informants happens in some cases here, she said. 

The Judiciary Committee will hear the bill on Thursday in Room 1113 of the Capitol. It is one of five scheduled for the hearing that will begin at 1:30 p.m.


FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR FILE PHOTO 

Nebraska guard Hannah Whitish (3) drives the ball up court against Iowa’s Alexis Sevillian (5) in the first half Jan. 16 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Whitish is leading the resurgent Huskers in scoring.


Nebraska
breaking editor's pick topical
Ricketts backs bill to raise speed limits on I-80, highways

Gov. Pete Ricketts is backing a proposal to raise the speed limit on parts of Interstate 80 in Nebraska as well as other state highways.

Introduced Tuesday, the bill (LB1009) by Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Curt Friesen of Henderson would allow the state Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on I-80 to 80 mph, up from 75 mph.

Murante said Nebraskans across the state have voiced support for raising speed limits on local highways to speed up travel between rural communities and small towns mostly connected by two-lane highways.

"We believe we can get that done and accommodate that desire without jeopardizing the people of Nebraska," he said, adding better continuity of speed limits will benefit motorists everywhere.

The speed limit on rural highways and expressways would increase immediately if the proposal goes into effect, the Department of Transportation said.

While the transportation department is confident the recently expanded stretch of I-80 between Lincoln and Omaha could accommodate higher speeds, further study would be done before the limit would rise to 80 mph.

Other speed limit increases included in the bill are:

Nebraska Legislature: Proposals we've highlighted so far

* 50 miles per an hour on a highway not on gravel

* 65 miles per hour on any four-lane, divided highway not part of the state highway system

* 65 miles per hour on a “super-two highway,” a two-lane highway designed for through traffic with intermittent passing lanes.

* 70 miles per hour on an expressway or super-two highway that is part of the state highway system

* 70 miles per hour on a freeway that is not part of the interstate system

The speed limit for I-80 in Douglas County would remain at 65 mph, as would the limits imposed on Interstate 180 in Lincoln and Interstate 129 in Dakota County.

Ricketts says the measure would make Nebraska’s transportation system more effective, efficient and customer-focused.

The proposal will likely face resistance from highway safety groups like the Nebraska Safety Council, which argue that higher speed limits have been linked to more fatalities.

According to a 20-year study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, speed limit increases of 5 mph on interstate and freeways were associated with an 8 percent increase in fatalities.

The fatality rate on other roads rose 4 percent with raised speed limits, the study said.

In all, the study linked increased speed limits across the country with 33,000 deaths from 1993 to 2013.

Mark Segerstrom, road safety project coordinator with the Nebraska Safety Council, said fatality rates in 2017 were up 3.2 percent over those in 2016.

"Now doesn't seem the time to be increasing speed limits," Segerstrom said. "Once speed limits are raised, drivers will continue to drive faster than the new limit."

Crashes resulting from distracted drivers have continued to rise for six straight years, up 29 percent from 2010, Segerstrom added. Other fatalities resulting from motorcycle, ATV, train, pedestrian and bikes were also dramatically up over previous year counts, he said.

"More work needs to be addressed at correcting the current problem we have," Segerstrom added. "This problem of elevated fatalities only intensify with a higher speed limit."

Murante said when the data is presented, "it will be a clear and convincing case to the people of Nebraska this is the right thing to do."

"I'm firmly convinced the roads will be safe and we'll be able to see some economic growth," he said.


AMBER BAESLER, Journal Star file photo 

Gov. Pete Ricketts


The Associated Press file photo 

State Sen. John Murante of Gretna