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Unsung Heroes Key to PEO Program's Success

By NU Athletic Communications

Lincoln, NE – Three years ago, the Nebraska Department of Athletics launched the Post-Eligibility Opportunities (PEO) Program, a student-athlete resource that remains the only of its kind today. The PEO Program provides letterwinner alumni with a one-semester scholarship valued up to $7,500 to apply to an internship, study abroad experience, or graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Back then, the PEO Program set out with the goal of providing Nebraska student-athletes unmatched educational experiences that increase their marketability, personal and professional development, and intellectual growth. Fast-forward to today, where 142 student-athletes have taken advantage of over $1,000,000 of PEO scholarship money to achieve a job placement rate over 98%.

Over the course of the past few years, countless members of the Nebraska Athletics have worked tirelessly to not only make the PEO program possible, but to make it an overwhelming success. Among these people is Associate Director of Compliance, Jena Johnson.

“Jena has one of the toughest jobs in the athletic department,” said Dennis Leblanc, Executive Associate Athletic Director for Academics. “She was instrumental as far as figuring out a way that we would be able to work through the Big Ten office and the NCAA to be able to get the money in the athletes’ hands in the appropriate way.”

“Operationally, just to make sure the athletes get their stipend when they get approved, there is a lot involved for her to do,” added Keith Zimmer, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills.

Executive Associate Athletic Director for Compliance, Jamie Vaughn, has also contributed significantly alongside Johnson to make the PEO Program possible. Vaughn was instrumental in getting the program approved from the onset, working closely with both Zimmer and Leblanc in a unique three-way partnership of sorts between Life Skills, Academic Programs, and Compliance.

“It was fun when we strategized through that process because it was really an opportunity for academic, life skills, and compliance to work together and pull people from campus and to be able to figure out a way to make it all work,” said Leblanc, speaking of the dynamic between the various departments.

Thomas Allison is one of those important people from campus who has been an integral component of PEO’s success. Allison, a Senior Career Advisor, assists the PEO Program by educating student-athletes on its essential details through a partnership between Athletics and UNL Career Services. As part of the PEO Program, student-athletes are required to enroll in EDPS 496 – Directed Field Experience, for which Allison oversees and serves as Career Services’ liaison to the athletic department.

“There’s a lot of people that make this program what it is,” said Zimmer. “Our partners in Career Services, especially Tom Allison, have been great.”

On top of the aforementioned contributions, Allison is also involved with select Life Skills events such as Networking Night and the PEO Workshop. During the latter, Allison makes an informational presentation to all third-year student-athletes addressing key concepts relevant to PEO.

Education on the PEO Program’s requirements and benefits is essential, especially considering that 26% of PEO participants are first-generation college graduates. In fact, this was one of the primary motivators behind the birth of PEO for Leblanc, as he wished to provide first-generation students with a greater chance of finding employment after graduation.

“For the individual who maybe was a first-generation student, who is going to capitalize on getting an internship, that was kind of the idea behind it,” said Leblanc. “Being able to have them come back and it’s already been set up, they’ve gone through all the PEO workshops, it’s great because they can just transition. I think it’s just made everybody better.”

Speaking of the ideas that sparked the onset of PEO, yet another individual helped shape the program into what it has become. Academic Counselor Joann Ross met regularly with Leblanc when the program was still nothing more than a thought.

“Joann was really involved back when we were trying to get this off the ground and she’s got a file about every meeting that we had, detailing all of the hurdles we had to get through,” said Leblanc. “She was the one that actually came up with the name.”

From Ross to Johnson, Allison to Vaughn, a string of individuals have poured hours of effort into the PEO program without ever seeking acknowledgment or praise. Rather, these people have made their contributions not for their own benefit, but for that of the student-athletes at Nebraska.

The same can be said for a handful of unnamed donors at the university. Since PEO began, the donor base has played a major role in financing the scholarships made available through the program.

“We’ve had a lot of donors invest in this program,” said Zimmer. “So far, we’ve spent over a million dollars on PEO, primarily funded from our athletic department budget, along with significant gifts from donors. Our loyal and generous donors are also unsung heroes related to PEO.”

As the PEO Program continues to grow, those involved are not getting complacent and satisfied with the success that has been experienced thus far. Instead, they are constantly amending PEO policies to better fit the ever-changing needs of the student-athlete body. Zimmer, among others, has high hopes for the program as it seeks to touch the next generation of Husker student-athletes.

“Three years in, it’s still evolving,” said Zimmer. “There’s always new circumstances that come up and so we’re always open-minded to exceptions of the current policy. Moving forward, we just want to be sensitive, we want to be aware, and we strive to be inclusive.

Going along with the old adage, “There is no place like Nebraska,” the PEO Program seems to echo this sentiment perfectly. Even today, Nebraska’s PEO remains the only program of its kind in the country. However, for some, the goal is less so about being unique, and more so about maximizing the level of impact a program such as this can have on student-athletes everywhere.

“In a perfect world, it would be nice if other schools are able to implement something similar to this, because even though it’s neat for Nebraska to say we’re one of a kind, ultimately this is for the betterment of student-athlete graduates across the world,” Zimmer said. “I think that’s the defining legacy, that this is reaching beyond Nebraska student-athlete graduates and eventually might become the norm in college athletics.”

If this truly becomes the case one day, these unsung heroes of Nebraska’s PEO Program will know they played a vital role in the realm of student-athlete development in intercollegiate athletics across the nation. But for now, these individuals are content with doing what needs to be done behind the scenes to ensure “there’s no student-athlete experience like Nebraska’s.”


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