NLP Paves the Way for College Readiness

Melissa_AlvarezIn the fall of 2010 Melissa Alvarez was one of nearly 8,000 freshmen to arrive at The University of Texas at Austin. For Alvarez, as for many other Austinites, the path that led her to pursue higher education was one paved in part by the Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP), an initiative of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.

Since 1991, the Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP) has collaborated with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to serve more than 71,000 students in 30 Title 1 elementary and middle schools. The program aims to provide economically disadvantaged students in grades 2-8 with resources and support to increase academic success and make a college education an achievable goal.

“Participating in the Neighborhood Longhorns Program really granted me the opportunity to experience a perspective on college life at an early age,” Alvarez said. “The experiences that I had with this program and the connections it gave me made it easier for me to choose to attend UT because it was already familiar to me. In many ways, I feel that this program has had a positive impact on my education because it has shown me that pursuing a higher education after high school is possible with hard work and dedication,” she said, adding that the program not only motivated her to set higher goals for herself but also prepared her to achieve them.

“The beauty of the Neighborhood Longhorns Program is providing college exposure to students as early as seven years of age,” said NLP Executive Director Celina Ruiz-Snowden. “We believe the earlier we can plant the seed of academic success with our students, the better prepared they will be in their academic career.”

NLP began through a partnership between UT Athletics and Austin ISD, when leaders in the university athletics community noticed flagging minority enrollment rates. The program’s strategy is uniquely comprehensive:  from connecting students with tutors and engaging them in educational incentive programs to exposing students to college at an early age, NLP works to ensure that students who are at a higher risk of experiencing academic difficulties are given the tools they need for academic success and encouraged with incentives tied to Longhorn athletics programs.

NLP also enables students to earn scholarship funds throughout their time in the program, helping students not only to envision themselves in higher education but to play an active role in realizing this future. “The generosity of our NLP donor community provides assistance for students who have completed our program and are entering The University of Texas at Austin by matching the scholarship amount earned in our program,” Snowden-Ruiz explained.

Cindy Lind is a strong supporter of NLP’s inspiring work. Not only has she served as chair of the NLP board, she is also the president of the Lind Family Foundation, which supports the success of NLP students by awarding annual scholarships to college-going alumni of the program.

“We serve over five thousand students in this program,” said Lind. “I feel very strongly that every child—every one—deserves an opportunity for a good education, and that is what this program does.”

In 2010 the Lind Family Foundation awarded $5,000 in scholarships to five outstanding former Neighborhood Longhorn students, including Alvarez.

“Receiving a $1,500 Lind Family Foundation Scholarship was definitely a wonderful experience for me,” Alvarez said.

“When I first enrolled in the Neighborhood Longhorns Program I was 8 years old,” said Alvarez, who was at the time a third grader at Zavala Elementary in East Austin. Alvarez’s three siblings were also involved in the program, and both her older sister and older brother went on to graduate from The University of Texas at Austin.

Alvarez was involved in the unique university outreach program through eighth grade, and still remembers the many events, field trips, and banquets the program hosted to get students excited about college. These included expeditions to The University of Texas campus and events with student athletes and university coaches who work with and mentor NLP students.

“When I look back to all these events I participated in, I would say that the ones that will always stand out in my memory would definitely be the chance I got to meet coach Mack Brown at the Lunch with the Coach event I attended in the fourth grade, and my first time setting foot inside Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium to join everyone in celebration of our 2005 National Championship victory,” she said.

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