'I finally made it!' 87-year-old receives degree

'I finally made it!' 87-year-old receives degree

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About 750 students graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Saturday, many of them looking ahead to their future careers.

Count Eleanor “Jean” Kops among them.

Seventy years after taking her first college class, Kops, 87, graduated from UNL with an individualized studies degree.

Kops finished two years of school decades ago before she took a break in 1947 and married her husband, Lyle. They raised five daughters on the family ranch near Bassett.

But when her husband died in 2011, Kops felt a void that needed to be filled. One of her daughters suggested she go back to school.

“I thought I was too old.”

Despite her age, Kops took her daughter’s advice and returned to UNL in September 2012.

Kops talked about differences from when she first went to college in the '40s, and the past three years. This time around she was able to lend first-hand perspectives to her younger classmates on events that changed the world, such as World War II and the counterculture revolution.

"My professor was really interested in my papers," she said.

Kops said she doesn’t know what she will do with her degree. Her first priority was enjoying her graduation party with 30-plus relatives who showed up to celebrate her special day.

Her granddaughters even designed the top of her graduation cap with the famous "Wizard of Oz" line: “You had the power all along, my dear.”

“I finally made it,” she said.

Hundreds of other UNL graduates joined Kops Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. And many like Will Miller, Kevin Bukowski and Brittanie Witter hope they are prepared to take the next step in their young lives.

Lights, camera, action!

After seven years, Brittanie Witter finally graduated from UNL.

But the long road to graduation had nothing to do with her schoolwork. In the spring of 2011, the 24-year-old theater major was accepted into the Disney College Program.

She enjoyed the six-month internship so much that she went back for another six months in 2013. And she’s going again on Sunday.

“I’m so fortunate,” she said. “I’ve gotten into these internships so easily that I take for granted how many people don’t get into them or had been denied or waitlisted for months. I got accepted within the same week that I applied.”

When she was attending classes on campus, Witter was busy directing shows for her major. The most recent play she directed was “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!)” in May.

She also had the opportunity to direct a play called “Mama Boy,” which was written by a friend who died in October.

 “This degree is a nod to him,” she said.

Witter said her dream is to direct a show for the ABC Film Group, which is why she’s devoted so much time to Disney internships. And even though working the Disney attractions may not relate to her chosen career path, she said those jobs have allowed her to get her foot in the door.

“I wouldn’t change anything for the world,” she said. “I’ve met so many incredible people. How many people can say they were in an elevator with ("Captain America" star) Chris Evans? He smells really nice, by the way.”

Designing for the future

Kevin Bukowski lives and breathes architecture.

From Omaha, the 23-year-old graduated from UNL on Saturday.

Since starting college, Bukowski has been involved in some kind of architecture project, from reimagining Michigan State University’s master plan for its campus, to working on a 13-story student housing complex in Tucson, Arizona.

Although he’s been passionate about designing buildings since taking CAD (computer-aided design) classes in high school, Bukowski said he never considered how a building’s design is perceived in the eyes of its user until he worked internships in Chicago and Germany.

Taking into account how comfortable a person is with a building and how well the building performs for that person is what will make him a better architect, he said.

“I’ve awoken an ambition I didn’t really have from high school,” he said.

Bukowski's next stop: CCY Architects in Basalt, Colorado, designing ski resorts and high-end residential homes.

“It’s just down the valley from Aspen,” he said. “I’ve never lived anywhere smaller than Lincoln, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Born and bred Nebraskan

Unlike some of his classmates, Will Miller is staying in Nebraska.

Nothing could be better for the 22-year-old, who received his bachelor’s degree in animal science and already has started a career in commodities for Great Plains Inc. in Central City.

“What I’m doing here is buying corn from local farmers to make our ethanol product,” Miller said.

Miller grew up raising cattle on a ranch in Culbertson. When he first enrolled at UNL, he knew he wanted to end up in a job related to cattle production.

“Growing up, I kind of just found my family’s passion for animals,” he said. “Now I am able to say I have my own cow herd and am providing a good meat supply. I’m getting excited to see the whole process and be a part of it.”

After working for five to 10 years and getting a sense of the industry, Miller said he hopes to run his own cattle operation.

Reach the writer at cdunn@journalstar.com or 402-473-2655. 

Follow him on Twitter @ConorWDunn.

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