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UNL to award degrees to record number of graduate students

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Nick Harp was at the midpoint of his graduate career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when the coronavirus struck.

For a psychologist whose work centered on studying people, the pandemic meant no more in-person research, limiting Harp's ability to gather the data needed to complete his doctoral dissertation.

Nick Harp

Nick Harp

The budget uncertainties brought on by COVID-19, particularly across higher education, also meant a tightening job market, leaving faculty jobs and research positions hard to come by.

Harp instead chose to lean into the pandemic, and over the course of about 18 months studied COVID-19's effect on the emotional bias of individuals.

"I kind of had this unique opportunity to ask some cool research questions," he said, "but it took some flexibility and adaptiveness to shift my research program to cope with the limitations the pandemic introduced."

Although he took a different path than he originally intended, Harp graduated on time and will be among a record-breaking number of UNL students to receive graduate and professional degrees on Friday.

The May 2022 commencement, which is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena, will include 737 graduate and Ph.D. students.

That's several dozen more students than the previous high of 698 recorded in May 2018, according to UNL, and up more than 120 students from a decade ago.

Debra Hope, associate vice chancellor and dean of graduate education, said the record-breaking number is the result of many factors, including students who were delayed in finishing their degree until this semester, or continued at UNL when job prospects were limited during the pandemic.

The numbers also reflect a policy change requiring fewer credit hours to complete an advanced degree at UNL.

"The graduate college changed its policy to be more in line with what other universities are doing," Hope said. "Many used to require 36 (credit hours); they dropped that back to 30."

While not uniform, some programs at UNL have begun scaling back the credit hour requirements, which has also reduced the time to completion for some students.

"The difference is two classes, which if you are a part-time student, is probably about a semester," Hope said. "That can make a big difference."

Hope said the record-breaking number was a testament to the grit of the graduate students pursuing a degree during less-than-ideal times.

"If you look at graduate students in general, they are tremendously resilient," Hope said. "I think that resiliency and that ability to be flexible served them well during the pandemic."

As a full-time employee of UNL's Landscape Services, Ann Powers began taking master's classes in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture on the side, studying landscapes and how people interact with them.

Ann Powers

Ann Powers poses for a portrait in the East Campus arboretum on Thursday. Powers is among a record number of students earning graduate and professional degrees on Friday.

Eventually, Powers charted a course to abandon her master's program and begin working toward her Ph.D. Then COVID-19 changed her plans once again.

When schools and child care centers shut down in the spring of 2020, Powers isolated at home with her husband and two young children.

"It was really hard, so I ended up taking off the summer and fall," she said. "I was worried that if things shut down again, I wouldn't be able to manage the kids, school and being ultraflexible with all of that."

Returning to campus in the spring of 2021, Powers refocused on pursuing her master's degree in applied science in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and will graduate on time.

Powers will embark on her Ph.D. program beginning in June.

While she has seen the lingering impacts of the pandemic on students — many have withdrawn from engaging in classes after courses moved online, or have articulated that they are struggling with mental health or needing to care for family members — Powers said she is proud to be walking across the stage Friday.

"It feels good to have something done, at least part of the journey I wanted to accomplish," she said. "It's a pretty big confidence boost."

Harp said the shift in research focus at the onset of the pandemic looked into how individuals interpreted the large-scale uncertainty going on around them.

When the uncertainty was at its highest early in the pandemic, when vaccines were not yet available, masks were harder to come by and treatments not as effective, more people viewed events negatively.

As the situation created by the pandemic became less ambiguous, Harp said, the tendency to view things negatively tapered somewhat.

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It's something Harp experienced first-hand.

"Especially at the onset, it was hard to stop reading the news," he explained. "One way that I can kind of turn this nervous energy into something more productive is to see if my work can inform anything related to the pandemic."


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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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