NEST Reaches out to Children and Teens: Program Provides More than $100,000 in Scholarships

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By Don Stenberg

The seventh- and eighth-graders lined up on the infield at Werner Park in Papillion tell the story of the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust best of all. Ball caps and glittery sandals. Hometowns stretching from Valentine in the west to Elk­horn in the east. Smart kids united in their dream to one day head off to college.

The students were winners in the 2013 Why I Want to Go to College writing contest sponsored by the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust (NEST). By law, the Nebraska State Treasurer is trustee of NEST. In all, 12 seventh- and eighth-graders were recognized last year in the writing contest, which enters its 12th year in 2014. Each winner received a sizable contribution to a state-sponsored 529 college savings account.

The annual writing competition, which attracted a record 1,400 entries in 2013, is just one of 20 contests, drawings and bonuses sponsored each year by NEST and First National Bank of Omaha, the program manager of NEST. These contests and drawings provide more than $100,000 a year toward college savings plans for children and teens not only in Nebraska but across the United States. Money for most of the prizes is provided by First National Bank.

The writing contest has been an effective way for seventh- and eighth-graders to reflect on the value of a college education and to think about how they and their families will pay for college. Past winners have displayed a depth of understanding of the value of higher education. Their essays have been honest and genuine and have focused on their families, their career goals and their desire to serve their communities.

The contest also is an opportunity for seventh- and eighth-graders to add to their Nebraska Educational Savings Trust accounts or to get started saving if they do not already have accounts.

The writing contest is NEST’s most long-standing outreach event for tomorrow’s college students. In addition, NEST reaches out to families at free, outdoor NESTFest celebrations in selected Nebraska cities and with its Fantastic Future Me exhibit, which encourages children to envision themselves in future career roles. The exhibit, developed by the Omaha Children’s Museum, has been featured at children’s museums in Lincoln, Hastings, Kearney and North Platte and will travel to Norfolk later in 2014.

At NEST we talk about the importance of young people dreaming for their futures and parents and grandparents saving for those dreams. The theme fits perfectly with the Fantastic Future Me exhibit where boys and girls can picture themselves as artists or computer programmers, as scientists or teachers, as pilots and even as the president of the United States.

We work tirelessly to inform Nebraskans of our state-sponsored 529 college savings plans and the value these plans provide for families looking for responsible and effective ways to save for college. We also strive to offer new scholarship opportunities and events for children and teens so they can be involved with their parents in planning for their college careers, as well as their future endeavors.

And we are well on our way to making that happen. The total number of accounts in NEST has grown from 189,094 in 2011 to 208,331, as of Sept. 30, 2013. And the total assets in the trust have grown from $2.3 million in 2011 to more than $3.2 million in 2013.

While we don’t get the pleasure of meeting all 200,000-plus account owners, we relish the moments we do spend with the winners of our various contests and drawings and the children who attend our outreach events. Through these opportunities, we find out what young people think about education and life in general. We also learn about ordinary families struggling to save for college and of the sacrifices and extraordinary responsibilities that young people assume to help out.

“Why do I want to go to college? Well if I am totally honest about my answer, I would say I never thought that it was an option,” wrote Taylor Hogan of Omaha, one of the winners in the writing contest for seventh- and eighth-graders. “I know there are a lot of people in my family and in my community who don’t think I will do it; the only people who actually graduated from college in my family are my mother and my aunt Tina. Let’s face it, I am a black student in Omaha, Nebraska, where I am told only half of the black students actually graduate from high school and even less actually go to college. I am not sure if that is true, but if it is, it is very sad.”

Through their writings and through their conversations, these young people teach all of us at NEST about hard work,

high aspirations, bumps in the road and perseverance. They also teach us about family bonds and lofty dreams, which has led us at NEST to encourage children to dream big and parents and grandparents to plan for those dreams by starting early to save for college through NEST.

Another popular contest, NEST on the Farm, is specifically intended for children ages seven to 13 who live on Nebraska farms or whose parents work on Nebraska farms. Six winners, who receive college savings accounts from $1,000 to $3,500 each, are recognized in September at Husker Harvest Days in Grand Island. In the contest, children submit essays describing what farming means in their lives and how growing up in farm families influences their educational goals.

The young people who participate in our NEST on the Farm scholarship contest write persuasively about their connection to Nebraska farm life and their educational goals. They represent the best Nebraska has to offer—young people who work hard, who strive to do well in school and their activities, and who value their families and their agricultural roots. They will be the future leaders of Nebraska and Nebraska agriculture.

“Some responsibilities that I have on the farm are feeding and watering animals, heat checking during breeding season, helping work cattle, and keeping records. Doing chores teaches responsibility,” wrote Allison Rippe, age 10, of Indianola, one of the winners in the NEST on the Farm contest. “I want to keep teaching other people about life on a farm or ranch. I think it is important that kids know where their food comes from.”

Madyson Sievers, age nine, of Wayne, wrote: “When I look out my window, I see fields of green, cows, tractors, and wild animals such as deer, skunks, raccoons, turkeys and coyotes. Growing up on a farm has taught me responsibility and hard work at a young age.”

One of our newest and most successful contests has been our Dear Grandchild drawing. Grandparents and great aunts and uncles were asked to share their thoughts about the value of college education in letters to the special children in their lives. Almost 490 letters were submitted. Four winners will receive $2,000 each in scholarship money to be deposited into a NEST account for a grandchild or great niece or nephew.

Dear Grandchild is inspired by the “NEST Best. Gift. Ever.” campaign, which is designed to encourage families to establish a family tradition of giving into college savings accounts.

As a grandparent of nine grandchildren, I believe helping a grandchild achieve a college education is one of the most important gifts we can give. By contributing to a college savings account or by setting up an account, grandparents are helping ensure a bright and successful future for their grandchildren. This is a gift that does not wear out with time nor is left unused on a shelf. It’s the gift that will truly last a lifetime.

Dear Grandchild also has been an opportunity for grandparents to share their hopes and dreams for their grandchildren and to offer words of encouragement and pride in a very personal way. I hope grandparents take this occasion to share their letters with their grandchildren. This is a unique opportunity for grandparents to encourage and support their grandchildren and to promote the importance of higher education while potentially winning $2,000 in a NEST account for a grandchild.

For more information about NEST, click on the College Savings tab at the Nebraska State Treasurer’s website at www.treasurer.org.

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