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More Than an Access Program: The Emerald Eagle Scholars at the University of North Texas

University Business, Oct 2009

When Alba Guerrero became an Emerald Eagle Scholar at the University of North Texas, she got much more than a free college education. Alba got the keys to unlock her potential.

She’s gaining valuable work experience as a student coordinator for Student Support Services-Discovery in our TRIO Center for Development. She’s bonding with fellow students as a member of the Hispanic Business Student Association and the College of Business’ Beta Gamma Sigma. She’s seeing the value of giving back as a volunteer with Upward Bound. She’s flourishing under the guidance of mentors. And she gained a new understanding of the world through her trip to Thailand last summer as part of the Emerald Eagle Scholars Study Abroad program.

Because of this, Alba will graduate from UNT in four years with a business degree, important connections and the tools to succeed.

“Students like us have a hard time getting to college and some of us don’t even think we can go to college,” says Alba, who is part of the 2007 inaugural class of scholars. “It’s great to have the support. It shows us that it’s possible.”

The Emerald Eagle Scholars program is aimed at students who have the drive to go to college, but not the dollars. The scholars are the sons and daughters of struggling workers, single parents, and immigrants who earn $40,000 or less. They are often the first in their families to attend college, and without the program, a degree would either be out of their reach or a long time coming.

But it wasn’t enough to simply cut a check to help these students earn their degrees. So the institution founded the Emerald Eagle Scholars program on three philosophical pillars ?financial support, academic success, and engagement?so that our scholars have the full breadth of education to succeed, both as students and in life.

Universities and colleges must find ways to reach out to students because the United States is not succeeding at being one of the most educated countries. Census numbers show that only a little more than a quarter of the population age 25 and older has a bachelor’s degree or more. Our nation ranks 12th among industrialized countries in higher education attainment, according to a U.S. Department of Education report.

An initiative like the Emerald Eagle Scholars program is one way that universities can help an often-overlooked population. When we created it, there were only about 30 such programs in the nation. While similar programs have been established since then, our program is still a front-runner, one of the few that takes a holistic approach to helping students in need reap the full benefits of a college education.

Since its inception, our Emerald Eagle Scholars program has given more than 1,200 students the opportunity to realize their dreams of college.

In the words of one scholar, that’s 1,200 people whose lives have been changed.

The program couples our belief in a student’s abilities with high expectations. When the scholars are accepted into the program, they, in essence, sign a contract with us. In addition to taking 15 hours each semester to graduate in four years and maintaining a 2.5 GPA, we expect scholars to work on campus, to engage in university life and to connect with peer and adult mentors.

Alba is maintaining top grades while juggling her 15-hour-a-week job and a full course load.

Like Alba, Roberto Arriola, who is pursuing a degree in bilingual education with a minor in music, will graduate in four years. He too has a strong GPA and holds down a 15-hour-a week job as a student assistant in the Office of Enrollment Management while serving as the founding president of the Emerald Eagle Scholars Organization.

As the organization’s president, Roberto rallies his fellow scholars to take part in campus events and community service projects so that they are connected to UNT and to their fellow students. The organization also gives the scholars an instant support network.

In addition, Roberto has an open door to his mentor, our vice provost of enrollment management, to talk through his concerns when he feels overwhelmed or simply has a question.

Engagement in university life is key to helping our Emerald Eagle Scholars stay on track and succeed. This is essential because many of them are first-generation college students who climb a much steeper hill on their educational journey. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics that tracked first-generation students starting in 1995-96 shows that they are at a higher risk for leaving a four-year college. The study found that first-generation students were about twice as likely as peers with college-educated parents to transfer to a community college or to leave their institution temporarily or permanently.

The Emerald Eagle Scholars program’s holistic approach is working. Early results show that 82 percent of our first class of scholars continued their studies after their first year, a higher retention rate than our usual freshman retention rate.

Universities that launch similar initiatives must provide ongoing resources to sustain the programs. That is why our program is endowed and we hold the Emerald Ball every year solely to raise funds for student scholarships. We’ve also designated staff to oversee the program and we recruit faculty and staff from across campus to serve as mentors. I’ve mentored four scholars of my own so far.

Perhaps most importantly, universities should view these as student success programs that give students a leg up, not just a hand out.

“If it’s just money, people would take the scholarship for granted,” Roberto says. “If you get more tools, it makes you a more successful person.”

As part of our commitment to growing the program, we also offer the Emerald Eagle Study Abroad program.

Fifteen scholars traveled to Thailand last summer in a three-week program to learn about sustainable development, environmental ethics and emergency and disaster management through research and hands-on experience. Our scholars put their knowledge to good use, working on community service projects in rural villages. This summer, scholars had a chance to travel to Costa Rica.

For scholars like Harris Martin, who had never traveled outside the country before going to Thailand, the chance to study abroad opened his eyes.

“It’s all about building bridges, whether it’s a bridge from UNT to across the street or from UNT to Thailand,” Harris says. “It opens up so many opportunities.”

Scholars also had the opportunity to take courses for free last summer, something Roberto took advantage of to stay on top of his studies. In addition, we launched a new partnership last fall with Education is Freedom, a Dallas-based organization dedicated to helping at-risk high school students go to college.

If the students work hard, meet the academic and financial eligibility requirements and complete the Education is Freedom curriculum, UNT will grant them automatic admittance to our Emerald Eagle Scholars program. Starting fall 2009 and during the next four years, we expect to admit 250 Dallas-area students as Emerald Eagle Scholars.

We believe it’s imperative to evolve our program so that it continues to meet students’ needs and provide new avenues for success.

Already, the Emerald Eagle Scholars program has been a lifeline to a limitless future for scholars like Roberto.

“I think it’s opened opportunities and plenty of doors to succeed,” he says. “I thank God for putting that on my path.”

Gretchen M. Bataille, president of the University of North Texas, can be reached via her office’s website,

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