Up From the Valley

A new scholarship aims to stop a flood of talent away from UT.

Daniel Garcia was valedictorian of his high school class. His grades and test scores were sky-high, and his three-page résumé was packed with awards and leadership positions. President of his school’s National Honor Society and captain of the varsity basketball team, Daniel was named a National Hispanic Scholar. So no one was surprised when a fat envelope from UT arrived in the mail, nor when he was also accepted to UT’s prestigious School of Architecture.

“My whole life, I thought I’d go to UT,” says Daniel. His parents Diana Garcia, BBA ’84, and Greg Garcia, ’82, are both proud Longhorns, and they hoped he would attend their alma mater. But the numbers just didn’t add up. UT offered Daniel loans, but no grants or scholarships; Texas A&M delivered a hefty aid package, which they then increased by $8,000 when he told them that Oklahoma and Arizona had awarded him full rides. He applied for Texas Exes scholarships, too, but none came through.

It wasn’t that UT didn’t want Daniel. A representative of the architecture school called to personally recruit him, and when he explained that he had better offers elsewhere, she came up with $4,000. It wasn’t even close to the A&M package. “It was a no-brainer,” says Diana.

Daniel’s older brother, Mark, is now a senior at A&M. Like Daniel, he was class valedictorian; also like his brother, he chose A&M because they offered him more money than did UT. Diana says it’s a familiar pattern. “This year, the top three graduates from our local high school all chose A&M,” she says. “It’s because of the money.

Middle-income families like ours are missing out, because we aren’t quite low-income enough to qualify for need-based aid.” Though Daniel’s FAFSA, or federal financial aid form, showed that he was eligible for aid, it wasn’t enough.

Officials in UT’s Office of Financial Aid are well aware of this problem, and they’re frustrated, too. Federal and state grants were down 18 percent this year. “With cuts that severe, we simply can’t put together competitive aid packages,” says Tom Melecki, director of financial aid.

The financial aid staff even underwent training this year on how to handle angry calls from students and families. Most callers, Melecki says, are more sad than angry. “People say, ‘Isn’t there anything else you can do?’” he says.

Alex Salinas, an assistant director at UT’s Valley Admissions Center, frequently counsels students in Daniel’s position. “I have that conversation on a daily basis,” he sighs. Salinas knows firsthand the challenges students from the Valley face. A first-generation student from a family of migrant workers, Salinas was admitted to UT, but couldn’t attend because his family needed support at home. “I got a great education at other schools, but I would’ve gone [to UT] if I could’ve,” he says. “UT loses a lot of great students from this region.”

An ambitious new scholarship aims to change that. A team effort from UT’s Office of Development and the Texas Exes, the Rio Grande Valley Scholars program will help high-achieving students like Daniel make it to UT. Donors have contributed $130,000 toward a goal of $600,000, and the goal is to select the first recipient in 2012. Eventually, the program will award three students from the Valley with $10,000 scholarships, renewable for four years.

Letty Fernandez, BJ ’78, Life Member, lives in Brownsville and is a member of the scholarship steering committee. She says the community’s response has been positive. “There’s no question that the need is there,” Fernandez says. “The Valley is really coming together to make this happen.”

Nolan Perez, BA ’93, Life Member, another founding member of the scholarship committee, calls the program an investment in the future. “The Valley represents the future of Texas in a lot of ways. It’s a majority-Hispanic area, and Texas is predicted to become majority-Hispanic in the next decade,” Perez says. “By helping these kids get a top education, we’re investing in our region and our state, too.”




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