Juan Carlos Franco ('10) wants to engineer a robot that can find life on other planets. Sarah Cheek ('11), the first in her family to attend college, has her sights set on helping more children realize the power of education. And Lauren Doxley ('10) is on her way to influencing the court system.
These recent graduates were part of the first class of Emerald Eagle Scholars, a program that has helped more than 1,900 high-achieving, academically talented high school graduates with financial need realize their dreams of earning a college education.
"I knew I wanted to study computer engineering at UNT, but my family wasn't sure how they could afford it," says Franco, who earned his computer engineering degree and now is working on a master's degree at UNT. "Being awarded the Emerald Eagle Scholarship made it all possible and now my future options are endless."
When the program launched in fall 2007, the scholars in the first class began their journey toward a college degree. Today, the college-access initiative is at the leading edge of programs for low-income students, as it emphasizes student academic success with timely graduation as much as it emphasizes removal of financial obstacles. Founded on the "philosophical pillars" of financial support, academic success and campus connection, the program provides students not just with funding, but with academic guidance and involvement in the university community.
President V. Lane Rawlins says that as much as UNT has changed the lives of its Emerald Eagle Scholars, the scholars have reaffirmed UNT's commitment to student success.
"The Emerald Eagle Scholars program embodies everything that is unique and powerful about public higher education: giving academically talented students with few means the access and support to change their lives through education," Rawlins says. "Many of the scholars are first-generation college students who have worked hard to make it as far as they have.
"The program proves that when you give a student the resources to succeed in class and to engage in campus life, you end up with a college graduate who is a role model for many and a go-getter for life."
Opportunities for the talented
Franco, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, was 10 when his father gave him his first computer. He redesigned it from the ground up.
"I took it apart and rebuilt it to make it faster. I was motivated to do a good job because I knew if I messed it up, I wouldn't have a computer anymore," says Franco, whose father realized his natural ability and then signed him up for an adult computer programming class when he was just 11.
"This was not a class for 11- and 12-year-olds," Franco says. "Most of the students were in their 20s and 30s."
In high school, Franco moved to Denton to live with his brother, Juan Manuel Franco ('09), who earned his undergraduate degree from UNT in computer science.
"My parents stayed in the Dominican Republic but sent us to the U.S. to go to school to have a better life," Franco says.
As an Emerald Eagle Scholar, Franco was named the 2009 Outstanding Computer Engineering student by the College of Engineering, and has had two internships that have helped steer the focus of his education. He spent last summer working as a paid intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, learning to achieve speedier data transfers in computer servers.
And this summer, he is interning at Raytheon, gaining hands-on experience with building radios before he graduates with his master's degree in computer engineering in December. The Emerald Eagle Scholarship helped Franco earn his undergraduate degree in three and a half years so he could begin his master's even earlier.
"Because the Emerald Eagle Scholars program took the financial worry out of college, I was able to focus on my classes and take about 15 hours each semester," Franco says. "This also helped me have time to take more internships and still graduate early."
The program is open to incoming freshman students who are Texas residents and live in households with annual incomes of $40,000 or less.
All Emerald Eagle Scholars receive financial support through federal, state and institutional funds, which cover the average cost of 15 undergraduate credit hours and fees each fall and spring semester for up to four years. Support comes from donors such as Ann and Ken ('66) Newman, who recently committed a $1 million planned gift to the Emerald Eagle Scholars program. And the annual Emerald Ball is a fundraising event to raise money to support the program by increasing Emerald Eagle scholarships.
Olaf Harris ('69), owner of Harris Design in Dallas and an Emerald Eagle Scholars program donor, has attended and sponsored tables at the last three Emerald Balls. He says now with the cuts in education, it is more important than ever for people to step up and help.
"The program is incredibly important to have," he says. "It gives deserving young people an opportunity to experience a college education, many the first in their family to get an education.
"By breaking the cycle, everyone moves forward."
Making the connections
In addition to financial support, the Emerald Eagle Scholars program promotes academic success by engaging faculty and staff mentors who provide guidance for students especially throughout their freshman year.
Miguel Robinson says the relationship with his mentor was one of the most influential he had at UNT, helping him keep his eye on his goal of becoming a certified public accountant.
"One of the best things the Emerald Eagle program did for me was to connect me to Peggy Green, who worked in the College of Business," he says. "She instilled in me the motto, 'Even if you think you've heard, seen and know it all — still listen to what they have to say.'"
Robinson, a student in the Honors College, says this encouragement and his educational opportunities have been the key to his self-assurance and his student success.
"At a networking event, I met an Ernst and Young representative who gave me her business card. Soon after, I called to reconfirm my interest in the internship opportunity," Robinson says. "She was so impressed I had the confidence to make that call, that she offered me the internship, which led to my full-time job offer with the company."
After completing an internship this summer with Ernst and Young, he will begin a full-time position in the company's tax practice when he graduates in December with both bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting.
Doxley, who majored in criminal justice and graduated cum laude, says her mentor and boss, Connie Smith, graduation coordinator in the registrar's office, made the difference in her education by understanding her responsibilities as a student.
"Ms. Connie encouraged me to stay focused and was an inspiration and motivator when I felt overwhelmed," Doxley says. "She made sure I realized that school was my first priority."
Doxley was involved in the University Program Council and Big Brothers/Big Sisters as an Emerald Eagle Scholar. She says the connection to the campus and the leadership opportunities helped prepare her for her prestigious Sponsors for Educational Opportunity law internship this summer after graduation and law school at the University of Houston in the fall. Her goal is to practice family, criminal and corporate law.
"I met some amazing people at UNT who encouraged me to press hard," she says. "Their encouragement fueled my drive and led to my early graduation and law school admission."
Learning about the world
Students tend to have a better overall college experience when enriched by participation in campus organizations, activities, events and opportunities, says Elizabeth With, vice president for student affairs.
"As students engage with the university community, they not only become caring citizens and are presented with leadership opportunities, but they broaden their network, creating personal and professional camaraderie that can have lasting impacts after graduation," she says.
One such opportunity is the Emerald Eagle Study Abroad program. Each year, a study abroad trip is offered to the scholars, who in most cases have never traveled outside Texas. The merit-based opportunity lets the students earn three credit hours toward their degree.
In the past four years, many of the scholars have traveled to Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina or Thailand, where they studied topics such as environmentally sustainable development and emergency and disaster management, and experienced other cultures.
Doxley says her trip to Costa Rica in 2009 helped to expand her thinking about the world and the importance of protecting the environment.
"Having to be extremely versatile on just about every level and being exposed to so many different situations and people forced me out of my comfort zone," she says. "It increased my confidence level, and viewing the beauty of nature was priceless."
Roberto Arriola, who plans to graduate in December with an interdisciplinary studies and bilingual education degree, says that participating in the Costa Rica trip was a life-changing experience. While there, he had the opportunity to interview the former first lady of Costa Rica and says the trip overall helped him mature.
"I've grown emotionally and spiritually," he says.
After spending the next several years teaching, he wants to attain his master's degree and become a school administrator. As president for three years of the student group Emerald Eagle Organization, Arriola knows firsthand how campus connections can change one's life. He met Amanda Hattoon ('11) when they both sang in UNT's Concert Choir, and proposed to her at this year's Emerald Ball.
"You get to know who you are when you get involved," he says. "You make friends for life."
Students helping students
Understanding the importance of campus connections from her own experience as an Emerald Eagle Scholar, Cheek was instrumental in helping start the Emerald Eagle Organization. The group helps scholars provide input about the program, in addition to participating in social, community service and fundraising opportunities.
As vice president of the organization, Cheek also worked in the Emerald Eagle Suite, a resource center staffed with advisors for scholars about the program's academic and financial requirements. And by organizing the Outreach Program, an initiative through the suite, Cheek made presentations to low-income elementary, middle and high school students about the importance of going to college and about how they, too, can achieve their goals.
"You have to get kids interested in college at a young age," she says.
Ensuring the Emerald Eagle Scholars program was successful and truly helping its scholars was particularly important to Cheek, who is the first in her family to earn a college degree.
"My mom went through the 10th grade and my dad graduated from high school," she says.
Cheek graduated from UNT in May with magna cum laude honors and is proud of how far she's come. She says her college experiences, such as speaking in front of large audiences at the Emerald Ball and student teaching in Lewisville ISD, have prepared her well for her role as an English-as-a-second language teacher.
"The Emerald Eagle Scholars program has given me everything," she says. "I can't wait to start my teaching career and begin to give back."
Empowered to succeed
Even though Ashton Brielle Burton ('11), a May graduate, is a first-generation college student, she knew at a young age she wanted to attend college and pursue fashion design.
"I've dabbled in fashion design since I was in the fourth grade when my mom bought me a hot glue gun and I put patches on my jeans," she says. "Later, I made my own senior prom dress, and a friend's dress, too."
Burton says the Emerald Eagle Scholars program has made her lifelong dream career possible.
"It was such a relief to know that money was not going to derail my chances of getting a college education," she says.
A fashion merchandising major, Burton landed an internship with Lloyd Waxman and Associates at the World Trade Center in Dallas during her senior year. And she's realized the importance and practical applications of the things she's learned in her courses, such as supply chain management, forecasting of style and color trends, and the use of software to design clothes.
"At first I thought, 'Why do I have to do an internship?'" she says. "But now I know that an internship is the best thing that could have happened for me. I learned from a seasoned fashion merchandiser and ended up with a full-time, paid position as sales manager working with overseas manufacturers, placing orders and pitching lines to clients at market."
While working at Lloyd Waxman and Associates, Burton plans to begin graduate school at UNT in the fall to pursue her M.B.A. She aspires to start her own showroom at the World Trade Center marketing her to-be-designed line of cocktail dresses.
"This is like a dream come true," she says.
UNT's Emerald Eagle Scholar program is giving students who otherwise might not be able to afford an education an opportunity to stake a claim in their futures. And with a network of mentors, student support services, special learning opportunities and caring professors who hold the bar high, the scholars are empowered to succeed in and out of the classroom and beyond graduation.
"UNT has definitely prepared me for my future," Doxley says. "My professors never settled for mediocrity and I am certain that their desire for the best will stick with me, allowing me to excel as best as I can.
"The Emerald Eagle Scholars program opened the doors for me."