During his sophomore year at UT Austin, Howard Nirken (B.A., ’93, MPAFF, J.D., ’97) embarked on an ambitious education outreach program that continues to be a big part of his life.
Back in 1991, he was invited by two key figures in Texas Women’s athletics, Donna Lopiano and Jody Conradt, to serve as a student volunteer coordinator for the Texas-sized Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP). Essentially his job was to connect student mentors and tutors with busloads of elementary- and middle-school students. A lofty project, but he was up for the task.
Twenty-five years later, the NLP is still going strong. Each year about 5,000 Title 1 students (grades 2-8) from AISD schools participate in a range of campus activities. The goal is to get economically disadvantaged students into the college-going mindset, and to possibly inspire them to become Longhorns themselves.
In addition to the NLP’s many student achievement incentives, the program provides a valuable service to the UT Austin student volunteers who are giving back to their community and serving as proud UT ambassadors.
Nirken, who served as student body president in 1993, attributes much of his success to his many leadership roles on campus. He believes that the students he meets at campus events and fundraiser mixers will say the same about the NLP.
“The university has quietly created one of the most successful educational incentive programs in the country that has changed the lives of current and future generations,” says Nirken who is an adjunct professor at the UT School of Law and a partner at the Austin-based law firm DuBois Bryant & Campbell LLP.
Nirken is often reminded of the program’s life-altering impact when he meets with past and present Neighborhood Longhorns at events on the Forty Acres and out in the community.
“They tell me how their lives were truly altered by the care and compassion of a mentor or a tutor who saw the brilliance in them that they at times did not see in themselves,” Nirken says.
Through the years, he has met many Neighborhood Longhorns who became the first in their families to earn a college degree. And though inequalities persist in the U.S. education system, Nirken believes the NLP and similar outreach programs will help bridge the education gap.
“I am a true believer that all children, when given opportunities to succeed, can and will excel,” Nirken adds. “However, it is naïve to believe that the educational playing field for all kids is equal. It is not; and, if we as a community do not try to level that field, then we not only lose a current generation of kids, we potentially lose multiple generations to come.”
The NLP is a partnership with the DDCE’s Longhorn Center for School Partnerships, Texas Athletics, and AISD. More information can be found on this website.