The overwhelming 21-year success of the Dean's Future Scholars Program at the University of Nevada, Reno has led to the launch of a statewide initiative, the Nevada First-Gen Network, to help students graduate from high school and achieve higher education – the first in their families to do so.
Through a bill first sponsored by Senator Heidi Seevers Gansert in the 2021 legislature, which led to using federal American Rescue Plan funds through SB461, the new program is expected to distribute $725,000 annually in micro-grants to other organizations that serve the same demographic profile of students and can help students enter college. The total funding for the three-year project is $4 million.
“Funding at this level from the State of Nevada has been incredibly humbling and shows the importance that Dean’s Future Scholars has played in Northern Nevada,” Donald Easton-Brooks, Dean of the College of Education & Human Development, said. “This program has had a profound effect on so many lives, both with students and their families. Funding like this just further validates their success, the programs stability, and impact on Nevada’s future.”
The Nevada Legislature passed the bill in the last few days of the 2021 session.
"Senator Seevers Gansert worked diligently to make sure $4 million was allocated to support prospective first-generation college students across the state who were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mariluz Garcia, Executive Director of the Dean's Future Scholars Program and the founder of Nevada First-Gen Network, said. “Supporting the work of our program is especially close to her heart because she is a first-generation college graduate."
Senator Seevers Gansert earned her MBA from the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s especially proud that by the end of 2021 her four children will all have degrees, with the youngest graduating next month.
“I’m honored to be a Nevada State Senator and doubt I could have accomplished all that I have without my education," she said. "I support DFS because I know getting a degree can help students across Nevada improve their lives and the lives of their families.”
The Dean’s Future Scholars program in the College of Education & Human Development at the University has pursued its mission to empower low-income, prospective first-generation college students to graduate from high school and achieve higher education by fostering long-term relationships and equipping students with the knowledge, skills, and support in order for them to become responsible and productive citizens.
“Nevada is in need of support for our first-generation students, particularly those who come from families with limited opportunities,” Easton-Brooks said. “Our Dean’s Future Scholars program and its vast success in Northern Nevada is a phenomenal model that simply cannot be replicated, which is why Senator Seevers Gansert’s support means so much to our college and the future of Nevada’s first-generation college students.”
The Dean’s Future Scholars program operations will remain the same, but the implementation of the Nevada First-Gen Network will provide a mechanism to reach more students throughout the state who are in sixth grade or higher by providing support and services related to mentoring, tutoring, and access to food, technology and educational programs.
"In my everyday work with DFS, I constantly navigate between the worlds of the University of Nevada, Reno, the Washoe County School District, and the non-profit sector," Garcia said. "As such, my goal is to approach this network using a wide-lens perspective that includes higher education programs, K-12 programs, and community-based programs.
"I will strive to connect the dots between first-gen practitioners regardless of geographic location, age of students, scope of work, funding type, program model, or setting. Even though programs in each sector have been historically siloed, we all agree that education is directly linked to social mobility, which has positive economic implications for the whole state and the overall quality of life."
Garcia will organize a needs assessment across the state to help guide how and where the micro-grants will be issued.
"I am excited to help tell Nevada's first-gen story through the statewide needs assessment and to steward these funds to bring together first-gen practitioners from different zip codes and to provide resources to help support existing efforts."
To date, more than 1,400 students from the Washoe County School District have participated in the Dean’s Future Scholars program. The Nevada First-Gen Network aims to strengthen the college pathway for underrepresented students around the state using the guiding principles from Dean's Future Scholars.
“Bringing together folks from both the rural and urban areas is the best way to meet the needs of our diverse state," Garcia said. “I believe that everyone has important expertise and best practices to bring to the table and we are stronger when we can work collaboratively. The Nevada First-Gen Network will strive to bring people together with the goal to eliminate barriers and improve educational access."
The Dean's Future Scholars program model is centered on building relationships and promoting a culture of giving back.
"This statewide collaborative approach embodies that," Garcia said. "As we all see during the global pandemic, our way of life can change overnight...doors can close, resources can dry up, and our sense of security can be threatened, but strong relationships will always persevere. It all goes back to relationships and helping others. So this statewide initiative will also embody those core values "
Garcia and her team have been working with the University's Human Resources Department to create six full-time positions (one project manager, three project coordinators, one website/data specialist, and one accounting assistant) and one part-time administrative assistant position. Easton-Brooks recently allocated new office space for the project in the Raggio Research Center on the 4th floor next to the Dean's Future Scholars lounge and a fresh coat of paint was just applied.
"Our targeted hire dates for most of the positions will be in early December and we hope to begin working on the statewide needs assessment at the beginning of the new year and then start the process of issuing micro-grants," she said.
Dean’s Future Scholars supports local education for two decades
With its humble beginnings, the grant-funded program has learned and grown a lot over the past 21 years.
“It is such a milestone because you never expect a small homegrown outreach program like ours to continue for two decades,” Garcia said. “Dr. William Sparkman started the program with 50 students back in the spring of 2000. His vision not only became a reality, it has created a positive ripple effect in our community.”
Students are recommended to the program during their sixth grade year and supported throughout their K-12 journey and beyond. The program currently mentors 413 low-income, first-generation students who are in grades 7 through 12 and attend 34 different school sites. Each summer, between 275 and 300 students attend the Dean's Future Scholars summer program on the university campus and have access to free academic and enrichment opportunities. Once they enroll at the University of Nevada, Reno, students have access to mentoring, tutoring, internship and employment opportunities, a study lounge with free food and printing, and over $40,000 in college scholarships are allocated annually.
“It originally started with bringing the students to (the University) campus for an annual conference to expose them to college life and careers in education,” Garcia said. “With donor support we added the mentoring program and expanded our summer program, but I believe the real game changer was when we started to grow our own mentors.”
Garcia said that it is a unique characteristic for a college access program to use the near-peer mentoring model where college students deliver the outreach and wrap-around services. Today, 95% of the DFS mentoring team and 57% of the DFS leadership team has been involved with the program since the sixth grade.
Every student recommended to the program is welcomed with open arms regardless of their background, academic performance, or family history. At no point are program participants screened based on their test scores or exited from the program due to grades, attendance, or behavior.
“We're just like a family where we go through the highs and the lows with them,” Garcia said. “Our goal is for students to do something after high school, and it doesn't matter what they choose. We’d love for our students to all go to college, but we know college isn't for everybody. Our goal is prepare them so that they have every option available to them after high school.”
Many of the DFS participants will be the first in their family to graduate high school. Currently, 60% of the program fathers and 56% of the program mothers have not graduated from high school. Since 2016, program participants have averaged a high school graduation rate of 97%, while their counterparts in the school district have averaged a graduation rate of 75%. In addition, for the past five years, program students have earned honors and advanced diplomas at a rate of 19 percentage points higher than the overall school district.
“It is going to be a very busy few years, but stewarding $4 million to support first-gen initiatives throughout the state that I love so much is my dream job," Garcia said. "Keep in mind that I am a school counselor by trade, so it really is a unique opportunity to have someone in this role who understands both the K-12 system, the higher education system, and has 18 years personal experience working with this population."