With each new academic year, another wave of freshmen pours into the university's residence halls. From clothes, bedding, and wall decorations to computers and other electronics, today's students can move into the dorm with enough stuff to put "Trading Spaces" to shame. But some, no matter how talented or bright, arrive with little more than a handful of belongings. Those students are the focus of Horns Helping Horns, a new program intended to give the neediest of Longhorns a leg up as they begin their college years.
The Office of Student Financial Services and Division of Housing and Food Service have worked together to identify entering freshmen who apply for both financial aid and student housing and who describe themselves as "independent" in their applications - a rarity for a 17- or 18-year-old applying for college. Juan Gonzalez, who as UT's vice president for student affairs oversees both financial aid and housing, says the numbers are not large. Ten accepted freshmen, some of whom are orphans or wards of the state, were identified. With little or no parental support, they are materially destitute or close to it.
"We've known about these kids in the past but have had no official program to address them specifically," Gonzalez says. "Any one of us has stories, though, about students who have moved in with very little, maybe just a duffel bag or even plastic bags that contain everything they have. Anything we can do to help them get on firmer ground from a comparative perspective, or just help them feel that they're in a better position to compete, is, in my mind, a slam-dunk opportunity."
As the program was rolled out over the summer of 2008, participating students were matched with mentors such as Kim Heilbrun, wife of university President Bill Powers. Heilbrun brought the idea to UT after learning about a similar program at the University of California, where her daughter went to school. Gonzalez intends to keep things low-key for both the students and the mentors, providing help without hoopla.
"Chances are," Gonzalez said as the program was first getting under way, "I and a few others who are interested in this are going to be calling up these young people and saying, 'Hey, how about going shopping with me this afternoon?' And we'll give them a modest budget to furnish their rooms and buy other things they need to get set up. We're checking into the costs of providing a laptop as well, but that might not happen this first year."
In keeping with the Horns Helping Horns concept, students who participate will be asked to help mentor a new student the subsequent year, says Jennifer Hammat, assistant vice president for student affairs. The process will continue with each new freshman class. "By identifying students early on who don't have adequate support, we can help get them better integrated into their new community," she says. "In addition to financial resources, they'll have someone they can call or go to for mentoring and support - especially in those stressful first weeks when they may feel that they just want to pack up and leave."
Housing and Food Service will manage Horns Helping Horns, working with the Development Office to raise private funding. Hammat hopes the program might be expanded eventually to reach a larger number of students. "We have identified a few students at this initial stage, but they're not the only students who come here with very little support. There are those, for instance, who can afford some things but maybe can't afford to buy all their books at the beginning of the semester. Some are carrying a full class load while also trying to work full time.
"If the program catches on and is something the University community really gets behind, I think it has the potential to be expanded. I have no doubt we can identify more students who need help."
Visit the Student Affairs web site for more about Horns Helping Horns and how you can help. If you are a member of UT's faculty or staff and are interested in being a Horns Helping Horns mentor, please contact Jennifer Hammat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-475-7450.