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Omaha Magazine

Nebraska’s Young Ambassador

Aug 22, 2023 02:55PM ● By Sara Locke
Zachary Wahab Cheek Pursues PhD, International Trade Relations from the Platte to the Thames

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

None of Zachary Wahab Cheek’s success came down to impulse. An advanced education, a career focused on growing Omaha’s potential, and a position making a difference in his community were all ‘Plan A.’ How he’s managed to come this far, however, is charged with serendipity. 

“My music professor at UNL once told me that it seemed like every step I had taken was an accident,” Cheek said. “It brought me exactly where I want to be, but I wouldn’t have guessed that this was the road it was going to take.”

In fact, life took an unexpected turn before the 23-year-old was even born. 

“My mom was the youngest of 10 kids growing up in Afghanistan. She came here in 1980 fleeing the Russian invasion,” Cheek recounted. “My aunt had done an exchange program with UNO’s Biology department, and she knew that winters in Omaha were similar to the weather in Afghanistan. So they came here, and my mom eventually enrolled. UNO became a pretty big part of our family’s story—my parents even met at UNO.”

And thus, the Cheeks became a family of Mavericks.

“I always thought I’d study at UNO,” Cheek said. “Whether or not I was going to college was never a question. My parents taught me to prioritize my education and to be smart with money.”
Cheek set his sights on studying music, laying out a path to earn scholarships to make it happen. Then an Elkhorn High School student, he joined the exclusive Metro Area Youth Jazz Orchestra, and focused on a career as a music professor. 

“I work hard, but no amount of hard work could have earned me the privileges I’ve experienced,” Cheek humbly continued. “And when I won a partial scholarship to UNO, it seemed like everything was aligning.”

But when he was also awarded a full scholarship to UNL, in addition to a music scholarship that covered a significant portion of the cost of living, it was worth considering where this opportunity could take him.

“Maybe somebody is looking out for me. That’s part of what keeps me so driven. All of these opportunities that I objectively shouldn’t have received,” he said. “I enjoy working within those circumstances and I keep finding chances I wouldn’t have been given outside of these unique parameters.”

With his parents’ blessing, Cheek broke with the family’s Maverick tradition and embarked for Lincoln to pursue a double major as a Husker. 

“I’m very interested in public policy, so I majored in music and economics,” Cheek said. “My scholarship is in music, and I had to take band for the credits. That was a really fun situation to be have to do what you love in order to graduate.”

His next step was just as unexpected. 

“UNL nominated me for a very competitive scholarship to attend a master’s program in the UK. I didn’t end up getting that scholarship, but it got me looking at the British academic system. A PhD in London is only a three-year program. A master’s in only one. So, I figured even without the scholarship, I may as well apply,” he recalled.

After earning acceptance to the University of Glasgow, Cheek felt he couldn’t have found himself in a better situation.

“Besides Omaha, Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world,” he said. “I was excited and talking to my econ professor about it and he stopped me. He felt I was qualified to attend LSE (London School of Economics) and that I had to apply.”

With one of the most diverse student bodies in the world, and a carbon-neutral campus, LSE operates under the same principles and ideals that Cheek hopes to champion. 

“One concept I was intent on studying is international trade; it’s a huge issue for Nebraska. We supply beef to Japan, corn to Mexico, and our economy is wrapped up intrinsically in international trade,” Cheek explained. “And Nebraska is integral in the battle against rural poverty in the global economy. Reducing barriers that are made on skepticism of science or on political talking points will lead to better economic growth, better healthcare and education, and more food security where it’s needed most.”

And so, yet another pivot found Cheek attending LSE. 

“Everyone laughed at me for almost attending Glasgow just so I could be in Scotland,” he laughed. “Living in London means you can visit Scotland as much as you want. But the experience I’ve had at LSE couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

His ability to take every opportunity in stride doesn’t stop at travel, education, or change-making. Cheek is a master at interpersonal connection as well. As his resume grows, so does his network of allies and advocates.

“Zack is one of the least judgmental people I have ever met,” noted Ela Heeley, former classmate and president of the student Hayek Society at LSE. “He’s very politically intelligent and proactive in engaging with other peoples’ opinions.”

Cheek’s passion for politics doesn’t echo from atop a soapbox. Rather, he offers an engaging and informed perspective that provides proponents and skeptics alike a more nuanced understanding of the policies affecting community, and one’s place in it.

“I have no doubt that he changes a lot of minds with his positive attitude to open discussion and general friendliness,” Healey said.

He’s keen to bring that positivity back to Omaha and see what kind of impact he can have in his home state. 

“He’s very proud to be a Nebraskan! He’s notoriously easy to talk to, and he’s become a good friend,” Heeley said. “He has taught us all a lot about life across the pond.”

Cheek is a Gen O-mahan to keep an eye on. He knows exactly where he’s going—and however he gets there, the trail will be ablaze behind him. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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