UNT student success program focuses on mentors, campus involvement in addition to financial support

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kimberly Garcia wasn't sure how she would do it, but she was going to go to college.

Garcia, the daughter of a single mother with a disability, has lived most of her life on government aid. She worked hard in high school, graduated in the top 5 percent of her class and applied for several scholarships, hoping to scrape together enough money to attend a four-year university. Otherwise, she planned to attend a community college in her hometown of San Antonio and borrow the money needed for tuition.

"I knew that somehow I was going to go to college straight out of high school," Garcia says. "I knew I'd be getting some financial aid, and I applied for a lot of scholarships. I hoped all of that would cover a university education."

Her hopes were realized when Garcia and about 400 other academically talented Texas undergraduates with high financial need began classes last fall at the University of North Texas. They stand to earn bachelor's degrees while accumulating less debt, thanks to an innovative, new student success program: Emerald Eagle Scholars.

Access and success

The Emerald Eagle Scholars program began with a $350,000 endowment raised last April at the UNT Emerald Ball, which was part of the inauguration celebration for UNT President Gretchen M. Bataille. To continue to raise money for the program, the university will present an annual gala, with the next one scheduled for March 1. 

The program is one of about 30 such programs in the nation and is a leading program in Texas. It is founded on four "philosophical pillars" -- financial support, academic success, campus employment and university engagement -- that support the concept of providing college students with academic guidance and involvement in their universities or colleges, in addition to providing them funds to go to school. This four-pronged approach is what makes UNT's Emerald Eagle Scholars program unique.

"This isn't just a program through which we provide funds for students. It's a program that provides support for student success," Bataille says.

She says she is committed to the success of the program.

"We are actively looking for ways to ensure that we continue to increase our need-based aid, and our Emerald Eagle Scholars program is a key part of that," she says. "We want to ensure that finances are never a barrier to talented, bright students enrolling on our campus."

The unique nature of the program is drawing attention from academic leaders across the nation, including Lattie Coor, president emeritus of Arizona State University.

"Extending a highly visible scholarship to promising young people who otherwise would not be able to attend college is one of the most effective ways to make the cherished concept of access a reality for students," says Coor, a professor and the Ernest W. McFarland Chair in Leadership and Public Policy at ASU's School of Public Affairs. "Importantly, UNT's program will not only provide opportunities to Texas students, but also will serve as an inspiration to other universities as they, too, seek to make meaningful access a reality."

All Emerald Eagle Scholars come from homes with adjusted gross incomes of $40,000 or less and are eligible for federal Pell grants. UNT administrators predict more and more Texas students will seek out the program in coming years.

"Very quickly, the program will grow to more than 1,000 students -- all of whom have great potential and high financial need," says Troy Johnson, UNT associate vice president for enrollment management.

The Emerald Eagle Scholars must meet the requirements for acceptance at UNT and, once accepted, enroll as freshmen taking at least 15 academic hours. They agree to maintain at least a  2.5 grade point average, work in a campus job and meet regularly with an assigned peer mentor and faculty or staff mentor.

Two UNT faculty members -- Christina Bain, associate professor of visual arts, and Neal Brand, professor of mathematics -- serve as key liaisons for the program. These professors add another layer of support for the students and are charged with helping them integrate fully into university life, particularly in the area of academics and intellectual exploration.

Aaron Clifton, a history major from Bonham who plans to become an educator, believes the program's requirements for participating in campus life will enhance his experience.

"It's good that we're required to get a job and be involved on campus because we will learn to do a lot more," he says. "It is making the whole college experience better."

Mentorship is paramount

Bataille believes the student peer mentors and faculty-staff mentors are a key to the success of the program.

"Students often don't know where to go for help and just need that extra measure of support," she says. "The mentors may or may not have the answers, but they give the students another person to help find the answer. Our hope is that we are building an infrastructure that creates a much more supportive environment for the entire campus."

Bataille is mentoring two Emerald Eagle Scholars: Johnny Villarreal from Pasadena and Tiffany Bunyavong from Fort Worth.

Villarreal, who first visited with Bataille less than three weeks after fall classes began, was initially intimidated but quickly began to feel at ease as he got acquainted with the UNT president.

"It's awesome to have someone who's gone through the same experience, who knows everything is going to be OK, who you can look up to," says Villarreal, a music major who applied to UNT because of the College of Music's reputation. "I know that if they can get through college, then I can too. I know that Dr. Bataille's there for me and if I need something and I don't know what to do, she's going to be available for me."

Keeping a first-class education affordable

It's well known that as state funds for universities have declined, the costs to students and their parents have risen. This creates an ever-widening gap between students with high financial needs and their dreams of earning bachelor's degrees.

"It's so very important that we find ways to compensate for the increases in cost, and one way to compensate is to secure the kind of donor funds we need to provide more need-based aid," Bataille says. "This program allows us to reach out and ensure that everyone who wants a higher education has the opportunity to earn one."

Bataille believes universities, particularly public universities have a social obligation "to keep the dream of a higher education and a better life alive and attainable."

"Public universities are the guardians and providers of accessible and affordable higher education," she says.

Paying it forward

Like many Emerald Eagle Scholars, Garcia is the first in her family to go to college. Now, she is encouraging her younger sister, who is in the eighth grade, to consider college as a real possibility. She also hopes to some day be a peer mentor to a student following her through the program.

"This program is helping me so much," she says. "I want to give back some of what was given to me."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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