Building people up has been a lifelong mission for Jake Kirkland. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he has helped students rise to higher standards, helped them through tough times and given students help when they required it to succeed.
Kirkland, 69, serves as emeritus assistant to the vice chancellor of student affairs and the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services (OASIS). Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he helps students even in retirement because education, he said, is his way of helping students rise above social injustices in the world.
“I’m a believer of education,” he said. “You give young people more experiences; you increase their world view of things.”
As an African American, Kirkland said racial discrimination is something he and the African American community can never escape from, so, when students come to UNL, they may feel like the sky’s the limit or wonder where they belong. There, Kirkland said, is where he tries to help students feel like the sky really is the limit.
Jeannette Eileen Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies with a sub-focus in African and African American studies, said history is the basis for understanding communities. Unless someone knows the social issues groups have faced in the past, she said people cannot understand the positions of communities.
“If you see that there’s a history to this and look at the impact it has had on various communities of people, hopefully, you will be awakened to the need for social change,” Jones said.
Unless someone can pass as being white, she said, they will endure the systematic racism endured through time as history has a way of repeating itself.
In addition to racism, Jones said interlocking oppressions such as homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and the prison industrial complex create challenges the black community must face every day because of the color of their skin. These are other reasons Jones said some people treat the African American community poorly.
African Americans, however, do not want to escape or give up their identities, she said.
“Most black people can’t afford not to be visible because … you can’t hide,” Jones said. “The problem is not that you’re black, it’s how people think they’re supposed to treat you because you’re black.”
As a history professor, Jones said it is interesting to see how much students know and by educating them, they learn more about the issues facing different people.
Before coming to Nebraska, Kirkland lived in a single-parent home in a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood. He said the community very much cared for youth but they had to do their part to be worthy of that care. It was something Kirkland said stuck with him.
His mother was originally from the south and would often read the newspaper and pass along that information, he said. While she had her opinions, Kirkland said she never told her children what to do. Instead, she left it up to her children to determine what to do with the information they were given.
“Like most kids, you put [that information] in your bank and you sit on it,” Kirkland said.
Growing up in poverty did not stop Kirkland. He said he had a hope and a dream for a better life. He was told education was a way to get there.
“You get the education and have the tenacity, and you’re going to be hard to be judged,” he said. “I know that because I’ve learned the system, so I’m trying to educate all students about that reality.”
As a child, Kirkland did not think race would impact or influence his life as much as it does today, but now he has grown to understand and passes those understandings along to everyone he helps.
Through 30 years of service in Career Services, the UNL Counseling Center, the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center and OASIS, Kirkland said he used education to help students, especially students of color, understand the world that he has come to know.
“There are issues and concerns that all students go through, but there are issues and concerns in addition to that that students of color have to go through,” Kirkland said. “When it comes to students of color, they have to reach another level to deal with those questions and situations and so on.”
And so, Kirkland returned to higher education after receiving a Bachelor’s degree of education from Chadron State University in 1973.
“There is no doubt about it,” he said. “Without an education and without having faith, it is quite a journey. You see things along the way and at times you feel very helpless because if you don’t have to deal with the problems or concerns I have, you don’t understand.”
Student Affairs was Kirkland’s staging ground for change over his years of service at UNL. Whenever students needed help, he was there to be a shoulder to cry on or a motivating force for students.
Even in retirement, Kirkland said work toward a more equitable and equal society is never done and education is never over. He continues to educate the community on issues facing the country and the world. He believes all students need to know the history of all communities to grasp the nature of black and African American people.
In Kirkland’s opinion, it is not enough to just help students of color. All students, he said, need support, encouragement, and someone they can turn to. “Everyone,” Kirkland said, “needs to be brought up to the same equitable level and not be brought down.
“I’m trying to paint a picture of some things that maybe you just didn’t think about,” he said. “Every day of life is a learning experience, every day.”
With Kirkland’s help, UNL students have a safe place on campus. He said Academic Affairs may help by providing a foundation for education as the breadwinner of campus, but Student Affairs goes further by listening and lending a guiding hand.
“When students are not doing well in the classroom, we have got to help them do some other things to at least get a balance so that they don’t get too down on themselves,” Kirkland said.
Through hard times like relationship concerns, the death of a loved one and financial concerns, Kirkland said Student Affairs is there to support students.
Charlie Foster, director of OASIS and the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center and assistant to the vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said the Jackie Gaughan provides services for students as long as they desire them with the goal to serve every student. She said staff make sure that the space is comfortable and welcoming for all.
“We see ourselves as a true oasis for students because very often, at a predominantly white institution, underrepresented students feel like they don’t have a place,” she said. “And so when they walk in this space, you can see the relaxation as the weight falls away from their shoulders.”
Foster said diversity and inclusion are crucial to a student’s success. By encouraging those principles, students feel more welcomed on campus.
“Diversity is when you invite a whole bunch of different people to a party. Inclusion is when everybody gets to pick music and dance,” Foster said. “That’s what we’re seeking to do. We’re seeking to be completely inclusive where students get what they need.”
The Jackie Gaughan caters to first-generation students and students of color, according to Foster, but their focus is on helping all underrepresented students find what they need to be successful.
Jones, who is also the immediate past president of the Lincoln National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the current Political Action Chair, said the Lincoln branch helps with issues facing black Lincolnites and that the mission has expanded to include all marginalized people, not just black and African American communities.
She said the Lincoln branch continues to advocate for Lincoln locals and fulfill its mission to “eliminate discrimination and prejudice” to ensure the “social, economic, educational and political equality of all persons through democratic processes,” according to the Lincoln NAACP branch website.
“In order for us to really have a truly inclusive and equitable and diverse society, as well as a campus, I’ll just say that you have to attend to those issues,” she said. “You can’t pretend that they don’t exist.”
Roshan Pajnigar, former director of compensation and employment for UNL human resources before her retirement in 2016, said she and Kirkland connected during his time in career services.
With Pajnigar’s involvement in human resources, Kirkland said Career Services asked her, in her role, to learn more about career services and the employment prospects students of color could have at UNL and in the community.
“We built that relationship where he would try to explain what the students were going through and how I could, in turn, [assist] a student if they came to me,” she said.
Kirkland said everybody is a work in progress, but through his work, he helped advocate for employment opportunities for students of color and helped teach them to become more aware of the hiring process.
He said the focus was also on encouraging students who serve as their own obstacles in the hiring process and get in the way of their own prospects.
“It’s hard to look for a job or market yourself when you are your worst enemy or you’re not as polished as you need to be.”
Pajnigar said in the hiring process, she was always able to be fair with applications and always give the position to whoever was deemed the best fit and learned from Kirkland. She offered opportunities to coach those who did not receive the position as well so that they could learn before the next application.
“I say you have to be given an opportunity, but you have to work hard and stay out of trouble,” Pajnigar said. “You got this opportunity, now work hard at it … and let your coworkers, your supervisor and everybody else recognize that you weren’t given anything special. You deserved it.”
Kirkland has worked, and continues to work, to figure out how to best help students and said he has helped younger people pick up a banner — or in his eyes, more of a shield — of education and helped every student feel like they could belong in the world and have a sense of place even in tough times.
“I think about the lives that I’ve touched, one way or another, good, bad or indifferent, and for the most part, I knew it was always from a positive perspective. My heart was always in the right place.”