Houston native and National Merit Finalist Spencer Taylor chose UNT over colleges like the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at Dallas because he could study mechanical and energy engineering with internationally recognized researchers and the cello with world-class musicians.
A fellow finalist, Tara Gardner, decided on UNT over the University of Oklahoma because its interior design program was top notch and its reputation for being a sustainable campus had reached her in Montana where she grew up. She knew about UNT's wind-powered football stadium and, as a vegetarian, she was even happier to learn that UNT has a vegan cafeteria.
Another finalist, Sharilyn Amaya, also chose UNT for its interior design program and because she could stay close to her family in Lewisville.
Having lunch with President Neal Smatresk -- Neal as they call him -- and a specialized tour to meet faculty and advisors also proved to them that UNT is a university with a strong personal touch that extends from the front lines to the top post.
Taylor, Gardner and Amaya are part of one of UNT's largest freshman classes and one of its largest groups of new National Merit Finalists -- a distinction that speaks to their high SAT scores, top class ranking and overall academic excellence. With more targeted recruitment, competitive scholarship packages and personal outreach from Smatresk and the enrollment division, UNT increased its number of new National Merit Finalists from five last year to 15 who started this fall joining the finalists already attending the university. In total, UNT started its fall semester with 30 finalists. UNT is attracting a greater number of academically talented students as it focuses on becoming a nationally prominent and first choice university.
In the Top 25 students of their high school graduating classes, Taylor, Gardner and Amaya had their pick of colleges, but the quality and diversity of UNT's programs, its friendly campus and its creative vibe drew them here. Each is in the Honors College, living in Honors College residence halls and soaking up college life in Denton, which was recently voted as one of the nation's top college towns.
"UNT offers an academically competitive environment, but it's not overwhelming or stressful like at an Ivy League school," Amaya says. "And I didn't feel like I was walking onto a college campus. I felt like I was walking into a new home."
UNT got a boost in its push to attract top students thanks to recent gifts. Five alumni are supporting UNT's National Merit Finalist program with gifts totaling $600,000 -- to support the university's goal of attracting more of the best and brightest students in the nation.
Smatresk says the gifts are giving UNT and the merit finalists a competitive edge.
“This will make a difference in the lives of our National Merit Finalists, allowing them to concentrate on their education and achieve their goals,” Smatresk says. “UNT is able to attract students like Spencer, Tara and Sharilyn because few schools offer the breadth of programs and experiences that we do. No matter what you want to do for a career — whether you want to be a cello-playing engineer or an interior designer with an interest in sustainability — there’s a place for you here.”
During his campus tour, Taylor met with Yong Tao, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Energy Engineering and an internationally prominent researcher on zero energy and sustainable technologies, which exposed him to a burgeoning new field in engineering.
"I had known nothing about that field and I'm glad to find out about it. I also like that the College of Engineering is housed in Discovery Park," Taylor says. "It's a nice environment to study engineering and to interact with other students."
Taylor, whose first love is playing the cello, knew about UNT because of its music programs. He was excited to find out that he could audition for an ensemble and take private lessons. That way, he didn't have to choose between his two passions.
All three cite the one-on-one attention of people like Sean Ryan, a senior academic counselor in the Honors College, for helping them make a strong start at UNT. Ryan cleared obstacles, getting them the classes they needed and situating them in their preferred Honors College residence hall -- either Honors or Rawlins halls.
Gardner says having people like Lisa Goodwin, assistant director in student financial aid and scholarships, go the extra mile has made a world of difference.
"Lisa took 45 minutes and walked me through everything about the scholarship and financial package. She really went out of her way to make me feel comfortable with how everything works," Gardner says. "Everyone has been so nice and it's made the transition so easy. I'm so glad I'm here and chose UNT."
That personal connection extends to their courses, both in the Honors College and in their chosen majors. A few classes, such as the Honors core credit class in philosophy, "The Good Society," already stand out because of the professor, Rafael Major.
"Professor Major is engaging and interesting. He has great points of view and he takes any student's point of view, so the class is like a discussion," Taylor says. "It's very interactive."
The faculty's personal interest in students is leaving a big impression on Gardner.
Amaya, her fellow interior design major, has experienced that same exuberance from her professors.
"It's a nice feeling that the teachers are there for you and they want you to learn," Amaya says. "They are excited about what they're teaching and make you excited about it too."
Brandon Ohl, a returning National Merit Finalist who is in the Honors College and is a sophomore majoring in materials science and engineering and English, fielded offers from the University of California at Berkeley and Missouri University of Science and Technology. UNT ultimately won him over because of the enthusiasm of the students and faculty in the program when he attended a summer materials science camp.
"The grad students were so passionate and the professors were so nice. They all told me why UNT was so great and how personal the department is and how easy it is to get into undergraduate research," Ohl says.
While Ohl applauds UNT's efforts to recruit academically talented students, he thinks UNT could do more to build its reputation by exposing these students to all that the university has to offer during the recruitment process.
"Ultimately, it is the very top students who decide the reputation of the school, in my opinion," Ohl says. "To get top students to come, you need to have top students here."
Shannon Goodman, founding vice president for enrollment, is leading UNT's efforts to increase the quality and diversity of UNT's student population through targeted recruitment and better outreach. His division, which includes the undergraduate admission and financial aid and scholarships offices, is driving the university's effort to attract more top students.
"We've been a best-kept secret for a while, but we're making sure top students know that UNT is a modern, innovative research institution with a creative heartbeat that will help them excel," Goodman says. "In many ways, they'll have more opportunities to spread their wings here because of the quality and diversity of our programs."
With more than 37,000 students, UNT has students from all walks of life -- and the newest class of merit finalists is embracing the uniqueness and diversity of UNT's campus community.
"I've met a wide range of people from so many different backgrounds. It's cool to see no matter where people came from, we're all here with a clean slate," Taylor says.
Gardner and the others love UNT's open-mind and open-arms appeal.
"You aren't pressured into being a certain way. It's not buttoned up," Gardner says.
They also love being in a location that offers the best of both worlds. They experience life in Denton, an artistically driven city known for its college town appeal, but they reap the benefits of earning a degree in a thriving metropolitan area that includes two of the nation's largest cities, Dallas and Fort Worth.
For Amaya, the sky is the limit thanks to what UNT has to offer.
"There is so much to learn and explore, and I'm so excited about what I'm getting to be a part of," Amaya says. "I am looking forward to everything that is in store for me here."