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October 21, 2008
By Mike Wolterbeek
Sophomore Manuel Ortiz should not be attending classes at the University of Nevada, Reno, let alone having graduated from high school — if you believe statistics. He is just one of more than 100 students in the Dean’s Future Scholars program who have succeeded in making it to college when odds were against them.
“A lot of why I’m here is due to the program,” Ortiz said. “Although I’d like to believe that I could be here anyway, it would have been a lot tougher. Before the program, in middle school, I wasn't really thinking about college; then they came to me and asked if I wanted to go.”
The Future Scholars program, for students from low-income families, is offered through the University's College of Education. It lights the way for students who have no example to follow, since they are the first generation of their families to go to college.
“The program really leads us in the right direction, you can’t get away with anything,” Ortiz said. “With its mentoring, the program is very hands on. Step-by-step they helped me, made sure I was on the right track, made sure I was keeping up with my homework, studying for placement tests, and keeping up with paperwork and applications.”
Garnering outside support
The Dean’s Future Scholars program now includes 20 more students from Sparks High School following a $200,000 financial boost from an AT&T Aspire grant that was announced Thursday at a ceremony to publicly receive the grant.
“This will help us expand our commitment to prepare students for college and ultimately the workforce,” Bill Sparkman, dean of the College of Education said. These 20 freshmen at Sparks High School are now on track to be the first generation in their families to attend college, a reality for those who may have never even dreamed it before.
Ortiz shared the podium with Sparkman, Sen. Bill Raggio and other program supporters at the ceremony at the College of Education plaza.
"There were tough times and good times,” Ortiz told the audience. “With the mentors checking in with me every week, they helped me through it. Having this experience made it more comfortable to come here as a student.” He is now pursuing a degree in secondary education to become a history teacher.
He also mentors 17 seventh- and eighth-grade students of the 300 students from throughout the Washoe County School District who participate in the DFS program. Nine other University students who were future scholars are also mentoring high school students as they work their way to college.
Mentors generous with their time
Through the program, University students are trained to help the middle and high school students persist through adversity, learn study skills, and prepare for and apply to college. These University mentors visit the schools and students weekly, a greater frequency than in most mentor programs.
"The DFS program began with a simple idea: before middle and high school students can consider teaching as a career, they must first believe that college is a possibility," Sparkman, who founded the program in 2000, said. "With this gift from AT&T, more of these young people will set the goal of a college education, and they will have incredible help along the way."
Of the first 164 students in the program, 68 percent (112) have graduated from high school. And with the help of GEAR-UP grants of $10,000, 101 are in college, most at the University.
"The program has been an extraordinary success and demonstrates the impact that intensive support and resources can have,” Sparkman said. “We expect a strong rate of return. This grant from AT&T will help us expand our commitment to prepare students for college and ultimately the workforce.”
A five-point program
Although other universities have recruitment programs that reach out to a similar demographic, the Future Scholars program is unlike any other in the country in that it includes all of the components recommended by research that will help students reach their goals of graduating high school and attending college.
Nationwide, nearly one-third of U.S. high school students drop out before graduating. In Washoe County schools, which rank 50th in the country for graduation, the graduation rate is 55 percent. It is lower at schools designated as “at risk.”
"These kids need someone to guide them," Bob Edgington, Dean’s Future Scholars director, said of participants. "They're talented kids, but without someone to guide them, their chance of going to college would be pretty slim."
‘Opening a new world’ to students
Ortiz acknowledged the influence of the Dean’s Future Scholars program.
“This program also impacts your family,” he said. His sister became a Dean's Future Scholar and went on to attend college. His two brothers at Hug High School are in the program. And Mom is always involved in what they do, he said.
“She always tells us do our best and don’t quit,” Ortiz said. “One of the best things was learning good study habits through the program, like do your homework right away. You learn the value of making it a priority, instead of just watching TV.
“It’s nice to know my brothers are on the right track. This expanded my social life, enlarged my world. It’s like this opened a new world for me.”
Major funding for the program and its elements has come from the UNR Regents Award Program, USA Funds, Nevadaworks, through a grant with the City of Reno; the GEAR-UP Program, the Nevada Public Education; an endowment from Phil and Jennifer Satre; and an endowment from Robert and Barbara Thimot.
Mike Wolterbeek is a writer in University Media Relations.