Kevin Chen is quick to point out that without the Dean’s Future Scholars Program, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today: a recipient of a Presidential Scholarship and the possessor of an incredibly bright future.
And yet, those involved with the Dean’s Future Scholars Program would be just as quick to tell you that it is a student like Chen, an honors student who exudes a flame-like love of learning, that makes the program shine so brightly.
"Kevin is just a remarkable young man," says Robert Edgington, director of the Dean’s Future Scholars Program. "Sure, the program has helped him get to college. But he is the type of person who always has given back far more than we’ve given him."
Chen is a 17-year-old senior at McQueen High School in Reno. He will enroll at the University of Nevada, Reno in fall 2009 as one of the recipients of a prestigious Presidential Scholarship, hoping to study engineering, among other things.
It will be the culmination of a process that began when Chen was in the sixth grade, as a student at Roger Corbett Elementary School. He became a member of the Dean’s Future Scholars (DFS), a pioneering program developed by William Sparkman, dean of the University’s College of Education in 2000.
Sparkman’s goal then – and remaining today – was to provide public school students from first-generation, low-income families with a formal support system to first graduate from high school and then attend college with a desire to become teachers.
The program’s success – of the first 164 students in the program, 112 went on to graduate from high school and 101 are in college, most at the University – has even astounded Sparkman, one of the campus’ steadying personalities who isn’t given to exaggeration or hyperbole.
"I think it’s turned out even greater than I could have ever hoped," Sparkman said. "To see the culmination with people like Kevin, who started in the sixth grade, coming up here to visit our campus, and now, starting in the fall, to be going to school here, is truly remarkable.
"Kevin is not only an outstanding student, he’s become a mentor to other kids in the program. It’s just been a great, great ride for us. I remember telling the first group of Dean’s Future Scholars students, ‘I hope I stay dean long enough to see all of you graduate from high school.’ Now, it’s, ‘I want to stay long enough to see you graduate from college.’
"Kevin has been just a tremendous example for all of our students."
For his part, Chen said his first experience with the program as a sixth grader led him to believe that he was making a decided turn in his life. His parents, Tony and Wei Fu Yen Chen, both immigrants to America from Korea, had always pushed the value of education to their son.
Yet there were definite barriers that Chen could sense, whether it was the fact that not many students from Roger Corbett had their sights set on college, or the fact that both his parents had to work incredibly long and tiring hours in order to provide for their family, Tony as a chef at the Peppermill (and holds a second job at a local sushi bar), Wei Fu Yen as a dealer the Siena Resort-Casino.
"I knew that the school environment that we were surrounded in at my school didn’t offer a lot of the opportunities that kids at other schools had," Chen said. "But I remember how the DFS people told me they would do everything in their power to get me to college, and that was ultimately what I wanted, too.
"I didn’t exactly understand it all at first, but I did know that it was something that would greatly help my life."
Chen immersed himself in the DFS culture. He not only sought mentors, he learned from the advice he was given and became a mentor himself. For the past two summers, he has helped with middle school-age students who attend the College of Engineering’s summer engineering camp. In addition, he’s served as a tutor at Echo Loder Elementary School.
"It’s really fun, because you get to bring back memories in elementary school, when you were a little kid," Chen said. "Those are some of the happiest times in everyone’s lives. There isn’t too much responsibility, and you get to be yourself with the students … you get to be a kid, too. And, it really is something to see a child catch onto an aspect of learning: You see something click on, and then they just understand. It’s a really good feeling when you see that happen."
As part of the Dean’s Future Scholars, Chen visited the campus regularly, which he feels has already given him a stronger sense of confidence than the normal freshman-to-be.
"That’s one of the greatest things about the program," he said. "Honestly, for the last two years, I’ve felt really comfortable coming to campus and taking classes. There’s no sense of shell-shock about it."
DFS has also provided student mentors, as well as an internship program that allows students to experience an area that one day could become a major.
"You pursue it for a year, and get to meet all the people around that area, and learn what it’s really all about" said Chen, who has gotten to know many members of the faculty and staff of the College of Engineering already. "Engineering is something that my parents have wanted me to take a look at.
"If I do choose to declare my major in engineering, I’ll already have that first step, that foundation, laid out. It will make it that much smoother for me when I start taking classes fulltime."
Although his experience with the College of Engineering has been thoroughly positive, Chen is also weighing other possibilities, perhaps a biomedical emphasis through chemistry, or perhaps even becoming an education major.
"I’ve thought about bio-medical, maybe chemistry, just because it might have the greatest potential to impact the world," Chen said. "I really want to leave this world with something good that I have done."
Becoming a teacher is something that also intrigues Chen. He said his experience with the College of Education’s faculty and staff through Dean’s Future Scholars has been exceptional as well.
"The thing about DFS is it’s more than one person," he said. "All of the people involved with the program have been so supportive. Even when students in the program make decisions that aren’t the greatest, they still receive nothing but encouragement. It’s like a second home, essentially. It’s been a way to try everything that the campus has to offer, and give everything a shot."
Edgington said much of the program’s success lies with its student workers, who serve as mentors and role models.
"Our student employees, once they’re hired, never seem to quit," Edgington said with a smile. "They’re with the program for three years, four years. We have a diverse staff, and a lot of our students do a really great job in sharing their own experiences with the students they mentor."
"I have spent some time considering declaring a major in education," Chen added. "One of the original goals of DFS was to give people a greater appreciation of teaching. And I have found that I do enjoy working and helping other people.
"(Teaching) really is a big part of me. When I’m with friends, I do find myself trying to help them; it’s a really good sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, when you do help others."
He cited his tutoring at Echo Loder as an example. From 3-4:30 p.m., following his own school day at McQueen, Chen would arrive at Echo Loder and help students at the at-risk school with reading and mathematics.
"I’d try to give them as much help as possible," Chen said. "There was this one girl. Her name was Jennifer. I think she was in the third or fourth grade. I really saw a spark of intelligence in her; her grasp of learning really amazed me. Whatever I taught her … little math tricks, memorization, whatever it was, she caught onto it really quick.
"I could just see her desire to learn. I guess that’s how it was when I was a kid. It’s really an indescribable feeling to see that. It brings back a lot of joy. "