UT mentoring project to aim for $50 million

Introduction to graduate study is popular among minorities

by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Monday, December 24, 2007

For her first couple of years at The University of Texas, Mayra Hernandez never considered continuing her studies after earning a diploma.

"I really didn't even know what graduate school was," she said.

"I knew I wanted to attend graduate school, but it seemed like such an intimidating, unattainable world. The Intellectual Entrepreneurship program attracts students like me who feel that the UT experience was kind of impersonal and that we didn't have networks and tools to navigate this elite world."

Then, encouraged by a graduate student who had taught one of her social work classes, Hernandez enrolled in a special internship during her junior year. The graduate student, Stephanie Rivaux, who is working on a doctorate in social work, became her mentor, and a new world opened.

Hernandez got a taste of the sort of in-depth research that is the bread and butter of graduate study. She met social workers, sat in on graduate classes and got pointers from her mentor on everything from writing a résumé to applying for credit. Perhaps more than anything, the experience boosted the confidence of a young Latina whose parents had not graduated from high school, much less college.

Come mid-January, Hernandez will embark on a master's degree program at UT's School of Social Work. Eventually, she wants to work in the trenches, focusing on child abuse and domestic violence.

MENTOR: Educating 'citizen-scholars" to work for social good is project goal

Her journey of academic and personal discovery, with the promise of contributions to the larger society, is precisely what Richard Cherwitz had in mind when he established the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at UT about 10 years ago. The program consists of a variety of initiatives involving undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members, with an overarching mission of educating "citizen-scholars," people who use their brainpower as a force of social good.

Now, Cherwitz and other university officials are hoping to expand the program dramatically by raising $50 million from foundations, corporations and individual donors to establish an endowment. The plan, which has yet to be formally rolled out, would be pursued in partnership with UT's development office as part of a universitywide fundraising campaign that is expected to have a goal of more than $2 billion.

"I believe this is one of the most innovative programs we see now," said Gregory Vincent, UT's vice president for diversity and community engagement, whose portfolio includes the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program that Cherwitz directs.

The program's initiatives are wide-ranging. One, called the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, is run by Martha Norkunas, who teaches in the anthropology department and has led graduate students in collecting oral histories of blacks in East Austin.

In another initiative under the umbrella of Intellectual Entrepreneurship, graduate students in nursing, communication and other fields brainstorm with civic, business and nonprofit leaders on such problems as crowding in hospital emergency rooms.

Cherwitz, who has taught at UT's College of Communication for 30 years, describes the program as a multidiscipline consortium operating across various colleges and schools at the university. It receives about $165,000 a year, most of that in the form of "discretionary" funds from 10 deans offices. Such money is not guaranteed from year to year.

A $50 million endowment, by contrast, would spin off $2 million or more a year, underwriting the mentoring initiative, graduate fellowships for research benefiting the Austin area and other projects.

The plan would dovetail with the university's effort to become more competitive in recruiting top graduate students, a major priority of UT President William Powers Jr. A sizable endowment also could position the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program's model of discovery, ownership, accountability and public service to become a defining characteristic of undergraduate and graduate education at UT, Cherwitz said.

The mentoring internships for undergraduates are especially popular among students whose parents did not graduate from college and among underrepresented minority students, such as Hispanics, blacks and American Indians. Such students make up nearly half of undergraduates in the mentoring initiative, which pairs them with graduate students or faculty members.

That statistic doesn't surprise Vincent, who said minority and first-generation students are eager for guidance. Eighty-one students participated in the program during the semester that just ended, an increase from 70 the previous semester. About half of students graduating with an Intellectual Entrepreneurship experience under their belts wind up attending graduate school.

UT, like other major universities, is eager to attract more minority students, especially to its graduate rolls. Figures for fall 2006, the most recent available, show that 2.6 percent of UT's graduate students were black and 7.7 percent were Hispanic. By comparison, blacks constituted 4.2 percent of undergraduates; Hispanics, 17.1 percent.

Veronica Luna, a 23-year-old Latina from Austin who double-majored in anthropology and sociology at UT, is on track for graduate school, though probably not in Texas.

Luna, who graduated in May 2006, plans to further her studies of the anthropology and sociology of education. She hopes to enroll at Stanford University next fall.

"I knew I wanted to attend graduate school, but it seemed like such an intimidating, unattainable world," Luna said. The Intellectual Entrepreneurship program "attracts students like me who feel that the UT experience was kind of impersonal and that we didn't have networks and tools to navigate this elite world," she said.

Uncertainty and self-doubt began to fade after she signed on with doctoral student Linda Prieto and supervising professor Douglas Foley. Luna sat in on manuscript reviews for a journal that Prieto edited, lunched with faculty members and wrote reports on academic conferences on campus. Like other students with such internships, she earned college credit for her efforts.

For Ana Lucia Hurtado, a native of Peru whose family lives in Laredo, the internship allowed her to shadow professors at the UT School of Law who represent abused and neglected children through the school's Children's Rights Clinic. The experience negated her assumption that lawyers lack integrity.

"But for this experience, I most definitely would not have really considered the law, just because of my biases," she said. "They were unfounded. And on top of the whole negative lawyer stereotype, I also thought it would be incongruent with being a good mother."

Hurtado, who has a 5-year-old son, met faculty members who were successful lawyers and good mothers. Now a first-year law student at Harvard University, she hopes some day to teach law students how to help underprivileged people secure their rights.

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604