When she opened the email, Aixa Flores-Dominguez was taking a break from performing with her dance team at an Omaha South High Magnet School basketball game in December 2019. The school’s WiFi wasn’t working so she couldn’t see the message from Columbia University –– just digital confetti cascading down her phone screen.

“I think I just got into Columbia!” Flores-Dominguez exclaimed at the time, prompting screams from her teammates.

Aixa Flores-Dominguez poses for a remote photoshoot in her Columbia dorm room April 16. Flores-Dominguez, who hopes one day to come back to Nebraska as a political leader, majors in political science and religion. Outside the classroom, she serves as an interpreter for Students for Sanctuary, a student-run organization that fights for immigration justice. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The Columbia first-year, who has a full-ride scholarship, joins droves of young Nebraskans leaving the state. David Drozd, research coordinator for UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research, said “brain drain” –– which happens when an outsized number of college-educated adults ages 25 and older leave Nebraska –– cost the state an estimated $3.7 billion in revenue between 2010 and 2019. The net outmigration of individuals with college degrees (or more education) is about 2,000 Nebraskans per year; when it comes to brain drain over the last 10 years, Nebraska ranks 12th worst of any state.

Brain drain largely measures outmigration of white Nebraskans, since 89% of degree-holders in the state are white. But Flores-Dominguez represents another group of Nebraskans that wants out: High school grads from marginalized communities.

Despite the mass exodus, Flores-Dominguez was shocked to learn she’d be leaving for Columbia. She’s a first-generation college student who had limited support throughout the application process –– no one even proofread her essays. Flores-Dominguez’s mother, a housekeeper and single parent who’s extremely supportive of her daughter’s education, immigrated from Mexico with her children 16 years ago. Finances have been tight for the family of five, especially when Flores-Dominguez’s brother had leukemia.

Flores-Dominguez smiles near a wall of photos in her Columbia dorm April 16. She said that, although her school offered limited support throughout the application process, the district held her up as their shining star once she’d been accepted to Columbia. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Although she’s close with her Nebraska-based family, which includes extended family members who also immigrated from Mexico, Flores-Dominguez said she was thrilled to “escape” the state. According to Flores-Dominguez, Nebraska Nice is superficial. Sure, Nebraskans are friendly to strangers, but when it comes to lifting up marginalized communities, she said white Nebraskans look the other way –– or accuse activists of giving unfair advantages to BIPOC individuals. Leadership positions and lucrative jobs go to already well-off white youths, Flores-Dominguez said, perceived by white Nebraskans as having the most potential. 

“You always hear in Omaha, ‘We’re taking care of our fellow Nebraskans,’ but who exactly do you define as fellow Nebraskans?” asked Flores-Dominguez, who said New Yorkers are comparatively eager to offer opportunities to individuals from underserved neighborhoods. “It’s a very specific category of [white] people, not Omaha as a whole.”

“You have no idea how many kids are like, ‘I need to get out of Nebraska right now!’”

Aixa Flores-Dominguez

When she was accepted to Columbia, she said students with more privilege acted surprised, asking questions like, “They’re letting you go there?” But in New York City, Flores-Dominguez has found respect and support –– plus health insurance, which she’s never had before, and networking connections for post-grad opportunities she couldn’t get in Nebraska.

Flores-Dominguez said her Omaha classmates of color, as well as LGBTQ+ peers scared to come out in a conservative state, are likewise desperate to ditch Nebraska.

“You have no idea how many kids are like, ‘I need to get out of Nebraska right now!’ They hate it [in] Nebraska … [and] don’t see the life they envision for themselves,” she said. “A lot of the jobs open in Nebraska are definitely not targeted toward individuals who look like me [and my friends].”

And yet, despite students’ desire to leave and statewide concerns about outmigration, many of these individuals are stuck in Nebraska. Flores-Dominguez knows brilliant young people who are floundering in a place they say won’t let them actualize their dreams. These students can’t leave in part due to limited financial resources but also because, Flores-Dominguez said, high schools set the expectation that students will stay in the state and don’t give them resources to venture out; they’d like to keep them here.

At a remote photoshoot April 16, Flores-Dominguez stands outside a Columbia University building. According to the first-year student, Omahans are relatively sheltered from the outside world. “Once you explore [outside of Omaha], it almost feels like everything you’ve thought about yourself [is] a false reality,” she said, “because you didn’t experience even a semi-realistic form of an environment you would see in … bigger cities.” Photo by Chris Bowling.

Besides some particularly dedicated teachers, including her guidance counselor, Flores-Dominguez insists it was opportunities outside her school –– such as a Yale summer program she independently applied to –– that got her into Columbia. 

According to the 18-year-old, the state’s top leaders, who are disproportionately white, make outmigration worse with their commitment to exclusively helping the white communities from which they come. They leave social justice to overworked and underfunded nonprofits, said Flores-Dominguez, who’s worked with organizations like Culxr House, Heartland Workers Center and What YOUth Can Do, which she co-founded. And between white Nebraskans’ refusal to see BIPOC as viable candidates and well-off constituents who vote to keep taxes low, that isn’t changing any time soon, Flores-Dominguez said, pointing to the 2021 Omaha primary results.

Flores-Dominguez said she’s determined to help make Nebraska a more inclusive place. Her long-term plan is to gain credentials out-of-state and then, years down the road, return to Nebraska as the socially conscious political leader she never saw growing up, helping to shape a state where people of all backgrounds can thrive.

“[I’ll come back] when I have enough experience … under my belt for [white Nebraskans] to have no choice but to take me seriously,” Flores-Dominguez said. “In … Nebraska, sometimes your potential is not enough when you look like me … [Right now, Nebraska] will not give me space to grow.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com

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