Opportunity scholars

This academic year marks the 10 years for the UMSL Opportunity Scholars Program. The all-inclusive, four-year Pierre Laclede Honors College program focuses on academically gifted students who are either first-generation college students or are underrepresented in the workforce in their intended fields. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Jalen Rhodes walked into class at Belleville East High School one early March day in 2019. He was dressed for the weather wearing a heavy coat, scarf and hat. The then-senior was a bit surprised when his teacher gently suggested that Rhodes remove his hat. 

But that mild surprise was immediately banished in the face of much larger astonishment. 

“I took my hat off, and I saw everybody bursting into the room like, ‘You won the scholarship,’” Rhodes says, describing how the room filled not only with classmates but his family and representatives from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. 

“I was happy. I was embarrassed because it was all about me. It was a great feeling. Having UMSL do that, taking the extra step to come to your school. I had never even heard of that.”

Rhodes had good reason to be thrilled. He’d just landed a spot in UMSL’s Opportunity Scholars Program. The all-inclusive, four-year Pierre Laclede Honors College program focuses on academically gifted students who are either first-generation college students or are underrepresented in the workforce in their intended fields. 

In the 10 years since it was founded, the program has impacted the lives of more than 50 students. It provides not only tuition but wraparound support that extends to housing, books and equipment such as laptops as well as faculty support, peer mentors, internship assistance and a social program. 

“The immediate impact is simply that we are able to support students who would probably have a very different college experience otherwise,” Honors College Dean Edward Munn Sanchez says. “The ability to take really strong students who would have to work and could not fully focus on college and allow them to do that makes a huge difference.”

That’s equaled a retention and graduation rate of 89 percent.

Those results were part of the rationale for the program, which was founded in 2011 as a joint effort between UMSL and Emerson. The global manufacturing and technology company donated an initial $1.65 million in funding and internships. Ameren, AT&T, Bellwether Foundation, Energizer, Enterprise, Wells Fargo, and David and Thelma Steward of World Wide Technology also provided financial support. 

OSP was originally intended to be an investment in keeping talent in the region while helping recipients achieve a superior education with no debt.

“It’s really freeing,” Lorne St Christopher II says. “Having that freedom of whenever I’m not doing schoolwork, I’m not stressed out because I’m not thinking about paying for anything. That helps.”

A pre-engineering student, St Christopher is in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and would have gone into the military otherwise. Nora Stith, a pre-dental student, would have attended community college before transferring to a four-year school. Kyra Chappell, who graduated in 2020 and is now a geodetic orbit scientist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, looked at schools outside Missouri before OSP brought her to UMSL.

For criminology and criminal justice student Bana Sultan, whose parents immigrated from Kurdistan, becoming a scholar was meaningful for her family. 

“My parents grew up in an environment where education wasn’t the easiest thing to achieve,” she says. “They came here from war and poverty to make sure that their children would live the life and get the education that they were never really able to have. When they first heard that I was getting a full ride, their minds were blown away.”

Sultan initially had a difficult time adjusting to school and turned to her peer mentor, Chappell, who reassured Sultan that what she was feeling was completely normal. 

A first-generation student, Chappell had looked to her mentor for support and that had made her want to do the same for other OSP students. 

“The mentorship program is invaluable,” she says. “I feel honored that I got to be a part of the program and to know that it is still going strong and helping so many local students.”

Chappell started at NGA as an intern, working summers and part-time during the school year, then converted to a full-time position upon graduation. 

OSP’s emphasis on internships also served Eric’el Johnson well. She found the Boeing Future Leaders in Thought and Experience Internship Program thanks to the Honors College. That led to further internships, and when she graduated in 2016, Johnson moved into the Boeing Engineering Career Foundation Program and then into her current role as an electrical systems design engineer.

Like many OSP recipients, Johnson has stayed highly engaged with her cohort, the program and the Honors College. She returns regularly to help interview prospective scholars.

“I definitely love to help interview the students,” she says. “Just to give back and then also to help calm the nerves of the students interviewing because I’ve been in their shoes. Like, ‘Hey, guys, just breathe, it’ll be OK.’”

Johnson likes the structure of the program and would like to build on it by bringing back alumni to share career advice. 

Munn Sanchez also has big plans for the future of the program, and the Honors College is in the process of fundraising with the hopes of deepening its impact. 

“It’s a great program, and it needs to grow,” he says. “Our first graduates have been out of school six years now. The impact of a program like this starts showing up 10, 15 years down the road. But all the early signs are there that it’s going to have that impact. Our students are moving through their careers exactly like we’d hoped they would.” 

This story was originally published in the spring 2021 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email magazine@umsl.edu.

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen