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Like everyone else in the incoming senior class at Papillion-La Vista South High School, Caleb Hill has a big, potentially life-changing decision to make in just a few short months.

What to do upon graduating from high school?

"My parents have always pushed me to go to college, and they've talked to me about the benefits I could have in going to college," Hill said. "They weren't that successful with college, so they want me to be better."

But still, the thought of leaving home and spending thousands of dollars over the next several years is daunting, even intimidating, particularly when campus visits to other postsecondary institutions in Nebraska and beyond have lacked the kind of connection Hill has been seeking.

The Dreambig Academy, a summer program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln now in its seventh year, finally unlocked that feeling for Hill.

Hosted by the College of Business, Dreambig is aimed at building connections for high school students who will be the first in their families to attend college, minority students -- more than a third are Hispanic, while roughly a quarter are African-American -- as well as those who meet federal guidelines for free and reduced lunches.

The summer academy, paid for through College of Business funds as well as donations from private partners, allows those students to experience UNL's campus, as well as interact with faculty, students and business leaders.

"We really want them to see themselves here," said Mark Barrera, the college's assistant director for recruitment technology, who is leading the weeklong event, "and that education is a possibility and that the University of Nebraska can provide that."

The 38 students in this year's Dreambig Academy have been able to explore the different career pathways within the College of Business, live in the Kauffman Residential Center, tour local businesses, explore resources at UNL and dream up a business idea to pitch to a panel of judges.

Edgar Montoya, a junior business management major from Ralston, said the Dreambig program "left an impact on me" when he participated in it two years ago.

While he always wanted to attend college -- Montoya said his immigrant parents only finished the sixth grade -- he wasn't sure how to accomplish his goal.

"A lot of it comes down to the fact that many of their parents, like mine, maybe didn't get an education beyond elementary school," said Montoya, who has served as a mentor for other students in the program for the past two years.

"For them, they really don't have anybody to look up to when it comes to going to college," he added. "What we provide and what we do throughout the week reinforces the idea that we're here to help and that going to college is feasible."

Another former Dreambig student who serves as a mentor, Claudia Alvarez of Omaha, said as the youngest person in her family and the only one to attend college, she needed a nudge from others to show her she could work toward a degree.

The Omaha Bryan High School alum is now studying hospitality, tourism and management at UNL, sharing the advice she received as well as the experiences she has lived with the new cohort of Dreambig.

"I've been honest," she said. "I tell them I failed a class because I wasn't as focused as I should have been, I wasn't paying attention, I had done some things I shouldn't have."

Alvarez said the Dreambig students need to know that even if it seems unobtainable, they are all capable of pursuing a college education.

"Some of these students don't believe in themselves as much as they should," she added. "I feel like they just need a little push from us to show them they can do it."

Barrera said while the goal of Dreambig is helping students envision themselves as college students, the program also doesn't shy away from telling students that college isn't for everyone.

A four-year degree doesn't align with each student's career goals, Barrera said, while others may not realize how much a college education can cost even after scholarships are applied.

The staff and mentors try to be blunt, Barrera said, while also giving credit to the students for taking the leap in exploring their options beyond high school.

Dreambig, which has enrolled 247 students representing 38 Nebraska cities and 62 high schools, has been successful in convincing students like Hill to apply and enroll in postsecondary programs.

Nearly eight in 10 participants have gone on to apply to UNL, while 73% have attended the land grant institution. Of those, 65% have enrolled in the College of Business.

Hill, who is eyeing a career in international business, said Dreambig has helped him connect with a potential future at UNL.

"At my other visits, I didn't feel connected, and wasn't really invested," he said. "This is what I wanted in a campus, and has really set me up."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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