A group of seven college-aged students in professional clothes pose for a photo. With one hand, they each make the hand symbol for the University of Nebraska at Kearney: pinkie and index extended up, with the other three fingers posed outward and pressed at the fingertips to make the face of a “loper” or antelope. They are standing against an indoor balcony, with a glass sculpture of bright colors rising from the background.
Mason Casper, second from left, with some of his Kearney Health Opportunities Program classmates. Casper said the people he’s met through the program have become his closest friends. Photo courtesy of Mason Casper.


With over 150 graduates and over a decade of success, the University of Nebraska at Kearney's programs has been bringing in students interested in healthcare and helping them practice in rural Nebraska.

Mason Casper’s passion for rural healthcare began with a drive. 

A three-hour drive, that is, from Kimball to Colorado. His grandparents began regularly taking this route after a specialist closed in Scottsbluff, forcing them across state lines for healthcare.

Casper, a native of Kearney, watched as the drive took up hours of his grandparents’ time and overwhelmed them with insurance issues. This situation, he said, opened his eyes to the looming problem of healthcare shortages in rural Nebraska.

It also inspired him to become part of the solution.

“Some of our most vulnerable people are having to travel the most,” Casper said. “Giving them quality healthcare, that’s what gives me hope.”

Casper, 22, is now a pre-med senior at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He’s also a member of the Kearney Health Opportunities Program, which aims to recruit and educate students who want to practice healthcare in rural Nebraska. Founded in 2010, the opportunities program has brought over 150 healthcare professionals to small and rural communities in the state, easing a nationwide shortage and connecting eager students with communities that need them.

The purpose of the program is to bring students into a rural health pipeline, providing them with support throughout their education, said Peggy Abels, director of health sciences at UNK. The pipeline begins at UNK, where accepted students receive a full-tuition scholarship. When the students move on to nursing or medical school, students in the program are guaranteed admission to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. In exchange, the students commit to practicing in rural communities once they graduate. The program is competitive, with around 100 students total in the UNK program today.

KHOP Columbus Hosp Spring 2023 2 1 - UNK program recruits, retains future rural healthcare workers amid growing shortage
Members of the Kearney Health Opportunities Program chat during a visit from Columbus Hospital. Abels said the program provides opportunities, such as hospital visits, that guide students and familiarize them with career options in small Nebraska communities. Photo courtesy of Peggy Abels.

However, Abels said the department has found ways to adapt. Since the creation of the initial opportunities program, the department has expanded. It has added new programs, like the Rural Pathway Program, created in 2022 to funnel more pre-nursing students into UNMC’s Kearney campus. The department also added a new health science building in 2015. Abels said since its opening, the building has served pre-health students across the university. Eighty-five percent of them have stayed in rural Nebraska after graduation.

“That’s an excellent statistic,” she said. “It’s proof of concept, if you will. We know that this works.”

Despite the expansion, Abels said the opportunities program is still the linchpin of rural health programs at UNK. As the oldest, she said it’s seen years of success, continuing to address a growing shortage of rural healthcare amid increasingly alarming statistics. According to the Nebraska Hospital Association, Nebraska is projected to see a workforce shortage of 5,435 nurses by 2025. Today, 78% of Nebraska’s counties have nurse-to-patient ratios below the national average; nine lack a single registered nurse.

Jed Hansen, executive director of the Nebraska Rural Health Association, said the problems come from the financial side as well. He said over 50% percent of rural hospitals lost money last year, crippling their ability to expand or recruit new nurses or doctors. Because rural populations tend to be older and poorer, he said, financial issues may be even more extreme.

However, Hansen said solutions are out there—and they’re making a difference. Youth programs get young students involved even before heading off to college. Accelerated nursing programs diminish the turnaround time needed to put workers into practice.

“We kind of talk about doom and gloom in rural health care a lot,” Hansen said. “But there’s a lot to really be proud about in our state.”

Hansen said programs like the Kearney Health Opportunities Program are an important part of the solutions puzzle. Most students begin building their lives where they train and study, which means those who leave Nebraska may be difficult to recruit back. On the other hand, by having an available program of study in central Nebraska, those people will be more likely to stay. 

Dr. Rick Poppe is someone who stayed. Admitted in 2010, he was part of the program’s first class of students. After finishing his schooling, he was excited to come back to central Nebraska and begin a career that excited and challenged him while suiting his lifestyle.

“My wife and I were kind of looking at places to go, and we knew we wanted to be in a smaller town,” he said. “So, I literally just had a big old map of Nebraska in our basement, and we circled a bunch of hospitals that we potentially could see ourselves living in.”

Poppe, originally from North Platte, now works in family medicine in Central City, where he’s able to provide healthcare to residents of small-town Nebraska. He said UNK’s program gave him space to decide which type of healthcare he wanted to pursue while giving him the resources and encouragement to continue in Nebraska.

“It’ll keep you in Nebraska, which is kind of the key component,” he said. “If I would’ve gone out of state, who knows where I would’ve ended up.”

Nine years ago, Poppe graduated from UNK and ended his time with the program. Now, Mason Casper is preparing to do the same, although he said the community he’s found in the opportunities program has been irreplaceable. 

“It surrounds you with people who are just as passionate about not only health care but rural health care,” Casper said. “Those are my best friends now.”

He begins medical school at UNMC in Omaha this fall.

Emma Krab is a senior journalism and English double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a focus on environmental, political, health, and rural reporting. She is a student reporter at Nebraska Public Media, and has previously written for Platte Basin Timelapse and the Daily Nebraskan.