Returning to the University of Nebraska at Omaha 10 years after graduating took Autumn Sky Burns down memory lane as she made her way to Criss Library.
As a student, Burns used to ride the shuttle to Dodge Campus. Now, as a working professional with a bachelor’s of education in human sciences and a master’s of science, Burns can drive her own car to the university.
Her path to earning her degrees was not without bumps, however. After graduating from high school a semester early and enrolling in UNO in the spring, Burns became pregnant with her first son, which impacted her housing situation.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Burns said. “I lived at the dorms and you can’t live at the dorms with a baby. My family was not here and since I graduated high school early, I didn’t know a single person.”
Burns had to move out of the dorms but said she knew she wanted to stay in school and earn a degree because having a degree would open more doors. She also didn’t want to lose her scholarship.
“I thought, I can’t lose this,” Burns said. “My parents didn’t have college degrees, and I was going to be the first one to have a college degree. I definitely was not leaving school, so I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ That’s when I began to see the helpers.”
Burns’ helpers are the individuals in the community that helped her stay in school and earn her degrees.
Her first helper was a UNO staff member in the financial aid office that helped her figure out how to put her scholarship on hold so she could take time off of school to give birth.
Burns’ next helper was a caseworker that helped her gain access to housing assistance, and when she went back to school, her classmates and professors were also helpers.
“There were a lot of different people in my college,” Burns said. “They would help me study and babysit.”
Overall, Burns said her experience with her helpers is what taught her about the importance of building a community and giving back, which led to her decision to run for Papillion City Council in the 2018 elections.
“I promised myself – that with every person that helped me –when I got to the position that I am in now, which is a stable job, a good career, a home… that I would turn around and pull everyone up that I could with me,” Burns said.
Unfortunately, Burns’ campaign hit a snag after election districts were redrawn in early December. She was placed in a new ward and decided to end her campaign.
“I’m not angry or bitter about what happened at all,” Burns said. “I’m hopeful that it could be a story of hope because you can’t be so fixed on what you think the end goal is that you miss ways to fulfill it along the way. I wanted to run to increase transparency and increase community engagement. That’s already happened, so I don’t need to be sad.”
Burns also said the resiliency she learned as a student at UNO has helped her get through ending her campaign.
“A lesson of resiliency is one of the best things you can learn going through college along with figuring out who you are,” Burns said. “Just learn how to be resilient because life is going to keep hitting you with crazy stuff.”
Katherine Huddleston-Casas, who was a faculty member in the child youth and family studies program that was offered at UNO through UNL, met Burns after she became involved in student government. Huddleston-Casas, who describes Burns as “compassionate” saw Burns’ resiliency first-hand when Burns was a student.
“She never complained,” Huddleston-Casas said. “She was clear when she was tired; she had a lot going on. She had a lot of responsibility and was managing that, but she didn’t become a victim as a result of it. It empowered her as opposed to held her back.”
Now that her campaign has ended, Burns is helping other women campaigning for office and said she hopes her story will inspire young women to run for office, as well.
“I’m hopeful that some young woman who is maybe not in the position to do something right now could get to see what I’ve got to do in the last 10 years and see that it’s not impossible,” Burns said. “Nothing is impossible.”