Written by: 
Meredith Moriak Wright
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik

Coral James dreams of becoming a pediatrician and working in the African mission field, providing medical care to children who would otherwise go without. When it was time for the San Diego native to choose a university, she toured many small, private universities in her home state, but something didn't feel quite right.

Interested in learning about other schools, James turned to Google to find out about those that provide scholarships to National Merit Finalists, a distinction she earned based on high SAT scores, top class ranking and overall academic excellence.

The honor is given annually to 7,500 high school seniors across the nation.

One of the top search results led James to UNT and her interest was piqued. She reached out to Tiffany Lipscomb, UNT's associate director of freshman admissions, to learn more about the university and schedule a campus visit during spring break.

"The prospect of going to a college that was large and far from home was nerve-wracking. But, the minute my dad and I arrived at UNT for the tour and experienced the helpfulness of the staff and faculty, I knew that I was going to be OK and thrive at UNT," James says. "Every person I met with was really interested in my personalized success and that was huge."

Personal care and attention
David Gonzalez-Corson

All National Merit Finalists considering UNT are invited to a private, customized campus visit where they meet with VIPs from the university administration, the Honors College and their academic college of interest. During James' campus visit, she met with health professions advisor Mardreana Reed and Jill Dewey, senior undergraduate advisor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

After meeting with both women, James understood how she could major in biology, earn minors in chemistry and Spanish, and complete the prerequisites for medical school admission, while simultaneously gaining the college experience she desired.

"After those meetings, it wasn't a question of 'Am I going to be taken care of?' You can tell people enjoy working at UNT and care about the students," says James, a sophomore. "There is a lot of stress being a premedical student, and having a support system is so important."

The one-to-one personalized care and attention given to every National Merit Finalist considering UNT has helped the program grow from four finalists in 2014 to 76 this fall. The driving force behind the program's growth -- UNT President Neal Smatresk.

"These students enlighten our classes and push discussions to a higher, more valuable level," Smatresk says. "They challenge their peers to think harder and their instructors to take the lesson one step further. National Merit Finalists help make our university a better place."

Making dreams come true
Coral James

UNT's National Merit Finalists come from near and far -- representing 20 states -- and study more than 40 different majors. About one-third are studying in the award-winning College of Music.

UNT's Texas-sized scholarship package, valued at $118,000 for in-state and $170,000 for non-resident students, covers everything -- tuition and fees, housing, a seven-day meal plan, books and parking -- and includes a $5,000 annual stipend. Many other schools offer a full ride but don't actually cover books and fees or provide a stipend.

Without the designation of National Merit Finalist and UNT's large benefits package, Sharilyn Amaya, a senior from Lewisville studying home furnishings merchandising, likely would have started at a community college before transferring to a four-year university.

"The scholarship package was important, but I also wanted to go to a school with a good culture that would make me proud," Amaya says. "I love how artistic and creative UNT is, how kind the people are and how much diversity exists."

Other public and private Texas universities were on the college consideration list for David Gonzalez-Corson, a freshman studying economics from Carrollton. But following his campus visit and a conversation with David Molina, associate professor and chair of the Department of Economics, he made his decision.

"I love economics and its potential as a field to effect real change in the world, so when I got to meet with Dr. Molina and see that he was a real person who cared about his students and the subjects he was teaching, I knew UNT was the school for me," Gonzalez-Corson says. "UNT is a top-notch university."

Lunch with President Smatresk didn't hurt either.

When possible, Smatresk meets with all National Merit Finalists during their campus visits to learn more about their interests and share insight about UNT's culture, academic programs and student experience.

"Dr. Smatresk was able to tell me about alumni in my field who were accomplishing great things. He wasn't generically speaking but listening specifically to my dreams and responding. It showed me how UNT has helped others achieve their goals and how the same would be done for me," says Amaya, a second-generation Eagle following in the footsteps of her mother, Drewann Amaya ('94).

Opportunities to grow
Sharilyn Amaya

To apply what she was learning in her home furnishings merchandising classes, Amaya landed a part-time position on the commercial merchandising team at IKEA's Frisco store the summer preceding her junior year. She assisted with one of the store's recent renovations.

"Because I have my scholarship, I was able to think of my job as a learning experience where getting paid was a bonus. It was nice not to have the stressor of needing to make a certain amount of money each month, and I could instead give my time and energy to the position," she says.

Amaya, who is involved on campus as vice president of the Professional Leadership Program, credits UNT for providing her with leadership opportunities. She also has gained another set of grandparents after developing a strong friendship with Le'Nore and C. Dan Smith ('62), two of the 22 donors who directly fund stipends for National Merit Finalists at UNT.

"I was seated with the Smiths at a 2016 event where we realized we all graduated from Lewisville High School. We continued to talk that evening and they invited me to attend football games at Apogee with them the next year. They are so kind, giving and humble with their time and guidance. Having a friendship with the very people who have provided me with scholarship funding is a true bonus I never anticipated," Amaya says.

In addition to meeting students during personalized campus tours, UNT President Neal Smatresk regularly hosts events that will allow UNT's 76 National Merit Finalists to spend time together and meet the donors who fund their scholarships.
In addition to meeting students during personalized campus tours, UNT President Neal Smatresk regularly hosts events that will allow UNT's 76 National Merit Finalists to spend time together and meet the donors who fund their scholarships. Learn more about UNT opportunities for National Merit Finalists at unt.edu/nationalmerit.

For Gonzalez-Corson, the scholarship alleviates a burden on his family and provides numerous perks, including automatic admission to the Honors College, early access to course registration, invitations to networking and VIP dinners, on-field recognition at a UNT football game, preferred parking, and fee waivers for the admissions application, freshman orientation and parent orientation.

"My parents have given up so much ­-- leaving their careers and family behind in Colombia when I was only 4 months old, all so my sister and I could have a better chance of success," he says. "UNT is enabling me to attend a major university without putting financial stress on my family. I am so grateful."

At UNT, National Merit Finalists are able to soar higher and pursue opportunities early on in their studies. Inspired by biology professor Ed Dzialowski's lectures on animal physiology during her freshman year, James expressed interest in working as a lab assistant and this fall began researching blood vessels in chicken embryos to learn more about the cardiovascular and respiratory systems in humans.

"Universities help people transform by providing them with the right environment to grow," Smatresk says. "When we give students the right foundation and plant the seeds of knowledge, they will flourish, grow and do amazing things after they graduate."