The Longhorns in Your Neighborhood: A Program Started on the Basketball Courts of East Austin 30 Years Ago is Still Going Strong

In 1991, Howard Nirken caught the attention of the Texas Exes. As a President’s Leadership Award finalist, the gregarious undergrad was being interviewed by the association for the award when he mentioned a recent community service event he had organized involving more than 1,500 student volunteers. “You got all those volunteers?” the panel asked him. “You need to talk to Donna Lopiano and Jody Conradt.” 

Across campus, the women’s athletic director, Lopiano, and women’s basketball coach, Conradt, were doing what they did best: being different. Less than two decades after Title IX, female athletes playing sports at UT on athletic scholarships was still a fairly new concept. Conradt felt that male scholarship student athletes were often seen on the Forty Acres as being privileged or entitled. Some thought they walked around like celebrities in their own bubble. And she did not want that to be the case for her players: “I had the sense that we needed to try and avoid that perception as much as possible on the women’s side, because it was new.” 

She knew there was a certain magic that happened when you paired young adults—particularly athletes—with school-age kids. Why not find a way to make things better in communities just outside the Forty Acres, while reminding student athletes that they were in a position of privilege? “Most of the women who were here on scholarship and representing the institution, a lot of them were minorities and most of them—most of all of us—somewhere in our background had received the helping hand of support from someone,” Conradt says. “You can’t forget that you have a responsibility to help others as you’ve been helped.” 

Force of nature that she was, Lopiano seized on Conradt’s idea. “We talked about it one day, and she thought about it overnight,” Conradt remembers. “The next day she came in and had it all laid out—a grand and glorious plan.” 

Donna Lopiano introducing the Neighborhood Longhorns Program and proposing the original 10 locations in partnership with Motorola, Texas Instruments, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, and UT Athletics.

Called Neighborhood Longhorns, the program would be a mentoring and educational outreach program, a way to connect UT students with East Austin public school kids just across the highway. And while they were still hammering out the details, both women knew it would only be successful if it went beyond athletics. They realized they needed help from the student body. Which is exactly when Nirken, BA ’93, MPAff ’97, JD ’97, Life Member, came into the picture. 

When Lopiano and Conradt met Nirken, they were weeks away from holding an info session in an auditorium on the third floor of Bellmont Hall. They mentioned it to him, and asked him to recruit student volunteers, expecting he could bring a few dozen. But when Conradt and Lopiano’s elevator door opened that day, they couldn’t get off—the session was so packed that students had overflowed from the auditorium and were standing in the lobby. 

“We laughed about that for years,” Conradt says. “If you ask Howard to do something, it’s not going to just get done. It’s going to be bigger than you can possibly imagine.” 

It was 30 years ago that the formidable trio of Lopiano, Conradt, and Nirken set out to give back to neighboring communities. Today, what began with a few UT students painting backboards and replacing nets on East Austin basketball courts has become a thriving nonprofit, now housed under UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, serving over 5,500 elementary school students across 40 Austin-area public schools. 

A Texas women’s basketball player connects with the East Austin community via the Neighborhood Longhorns program, circa 1991.

Celina Ruiz-Snowden, BA ’05, Life Member, was one of those hundreds of student volunteers Nirken recruited. “I instantly fell in love with working with the community,” she remembers. As a first-generation college student from the northeast side of San Antonio, Ruiz-Snowden had never had any exposure to a college campus before coming to UT. 

“It was important to me—and fascinating—to be part of this collective effort at The University of Texas, reaching out to kids and schools literally across the street, across I-35, who could step outside of their school, look at the UT campus, and have no idea what was going on there,” she says. Which is exactly how she spends her time now, as the current program director of Neighborhood Longhorns.

These days, outreach looks a lot different than the early days of heading to a local basketball court. Ruiz-Snowden, along with her staff of two and four student leaders, creates partnerships with local elementary and middle schools. They design incentive programs where students who read a certain amount of books each year qualify for a field trip to a football or baseball game; run “College for a Day,” where fourth and fifth graders spend a day on campus sitting in on classes and meeting with professors; and coordinate over 750 UT students who volunteer as tutors and mentors. And, of course, everything changed with the global pandemic. Ruiz-Snowden and her team spent 2020 launching virtual tutoring programs and creating over 50 videos—featuring everything from a student reading a book, or giving a tour of campus, to someone from the ROTC talking about leadership—for AISD teachers to use when they needed a brain break. But the mission of the program hasn’t changed. 

“We’re an educational outreach program,” Ruiz-Snowden says. “We’re reaching out to the community and providing them an educational component so they know at a young age that college is something that is attainable.” 

The original cast of characters hasn’t changed much, either. Both Nirken and Conradt serve on the board, working to secure funding, volunteers, and more to keep their passion project alive. 

“People stay involved in this program because it’s a thing the university has done in the background—and done for all the right reasons,” Nirken says. 

Since it began, over 96,000 kids have participated in Neighborhood Longhorns, and the program has raised close to $1 million in scholarships. But, perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a different metric that stands out to the man responsible for drawing the crowds to that first meeting. 

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of volunteers,” Nirken says. “Once you go into these schools and see the importance of being a mentor and tutor—that has a lifetime effect.”  

Top photo: Jody Conradt looks on as Texas student athletes demonstrate skills for kids in the community on newly renovated basketball courts, circa 1991.


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