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NORTH PLATTE -- From the eighth floor of the Golden Spike Tower, overlooking the railroad tracks that crisscross his new home state, Hank Bounds succinctly sums up his reason for leaving Mississippi to become NU’s seventh president.

Will and Caroline Bounds.

Striking out west across the Nebraska prairie on Monday, his first official day on the job and the second of a six-day, 1,500-mile “Getting to Know Nebraska Tour,” Hank Bounds told anyone interested in his move from the South to the Midwest that he wants to help the University of Nebraska “make a real difference” in the futures of his two children.

Economists and social scientists predict the world population will swell from 7.2 billion to more than 9.5 billion by 2050, creating challenges Bounds said will make it difficult to leave a better world for his kids.

NU’s campus, which administrators and regents like to say stretches from Nebraska City to Scottsbluff, and the university's roster of institutes and centers have developed a “rural and urban laboratory” in which those challenges can be addressed and potentially solved, Bounds said.

“I wanted to go somewhere where we can change the world,” he told a small reception in North Platte Monday evening. “How do I change things so that the world is a better place for Will and Caroline?”

The answer to any question is education, Bounds said, and that took him from growing up poor on a farm in southern Mississippi to being the head of a university system with 51,000 students and involved in hundreds of millions of dollars in research and outreach.

The road wasn’t easy, he told 450 sophomores at Grand Island Senior High Monday morning. After graduating from Forrest County Agricultural High School, the last public boarding school of its kind in the U.S., Bounds enrolled in a local community college and enlisted in the Mississippi National Guard to help pay tuition for the degrees he earned from the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi.

He got a job teaching history to high school students, and worked his way through the administrative ranks to become leader of Mississippi’s K-12 education system and later commissioner of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

The nowhere-to-somewhere story is one that should resonate with many Nebraska students, said Grand Island Senior High Principal Jeff Gilbertson.

“We’re ‘Anywhere, America,’” Gilbertson said. “We have students who live in generational poverty, who maybe don’t know what potential they have.

"Hank Bounds was one of those students who didn’t know his potential until he decided he was going to college. Look at him now."

Sixty percent of Grand Island's public school students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and Bounds told them earning a college degree is a game changer that could affect their lives forever.

“Education changed the course of my life," he said. "It will forever change what my children will be able to do.”

Higher education also needs to drive the innovation that makes the world a better place, the president told faculty and staff at the University of Nebraska at Kearney Monday.

Efforts like the Health Science Education Complex, a $19 million collaboration between UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, demonstrate the opportunities NU must find to become a “giant in higher education,” a phrase Bounds uses often.

“If this state is going to be successful, we need to think about the entire state -- not just the metro areas, but the entire state,” Bounds said.

UNK faculty encouraged him to strengthen NU’s relationship with rural Nebraska in all areas of the land-grant university's mission, suggesting programs tailored to rural health clinics and expanding study abroad opportunities at examples.

Throughout his journey, Nebraskans shared a similar refrain with the new university president: Engage the entire state.

Engaging with professionals, instructors and students at places like the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, where research is creating more efficient food delivery systems for livestock, and the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, where veterinary and agricultural leaders are in training, struck the right chord with ag leaders who see NU as a valuable partner and resource.

It’s a similar move Bounds’ predecessor J.B. Milliken made back in 2004 and one that drew praise from ranchers like Kevin Cooksley, chairman of the Nebraska Rural Radio board of directors.

In a state where one in three jobs is tied to agriculture, a simple meet-and-greet at the KRVN-AM studio in Lexington helps shrink the 500-mile campus a bit.

Cooksley, who described Bounds as "you get what you see," invited the president out to his Custer County ranch in May for the annual cattle branding.

“I’ve seen enough folks who have been in situations like he is that relish going out to where real life is,” Cooksley said. “He seems to be right at home."

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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