There are two things no sports program can do without: athletes and fans. By the early 1990s, the UT Athletics Department had reason to worry about losing them both. Like many universities in Texas, a significant number of UT’s student athletes were African American. But historically UT’s overall enrollment of underrepresented or underserved students had been smaller than most of its neighbors. When new African American student enrollment fell in 1991, Longhorn student athletes joined the public in crying foul at the racist message this disparity sent.
Jody Conradt, then head coach of UT’s beloved Lady Longhorn basketball team, looks back on that painful time. “We had big problems. UT was just not seen as a welcoming place, particularly in communities of color. It hit morale and recruiting hard. We really needed to reach out and show that we cared.”
The Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP), devised by Conradt and colleagues Tom Penders, Donna Lopiano, and DeLoss Dodds in 1991, has done much to bridge the gap between UT and the communities that it wants to engage—one child at a time.
Now, nearly 20 years later, NLP thrives as a part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement under the guidance of Director Celina Ruiz-Snowden. Ruiz-Snowden explained, “DDCE’s support of our program demonstrates the commitment the university has made to providing educational opportunities to the youth in the community by integrating the Neighborhood Longhorns Program into a division that focuses on accessibility and collaboration.”
Through an innovative partnership with the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and UT Athletics, NLP presents students in grades two through eight enrolled in Title I schools with tangible incentives to better their academic achievement. Centered on Longhorn sports, these incentives allow young achievers to do everything from attend games to hang out with coaches and student athletes. A powerful draw for sure, but there’s more to it. NLP incentives are designed to both inspire kids to do their best and to create opportunities for them to experience The University of Texas at Austin firsthand.
While NLP opens the door to higher education for many students who have never stepped foot on a college campus, they’re not the only ones who benefit from the program, according to UT’s Director of Women’s Athletics, Christine Plonsky. She explained:
“The Neighborhood Longhorns Program is good for all of UT today, not just athletics. It inspires and incentivizes youngsters to establish the work ethic and discipline necessary to make the dream of a college education a reality. It is this type of community impact that is expected—indeed, demanded—from a university of the first class.”
Since 1991, NLP has touched the lives of 55,300 of Austin Title I students. In the 2008–2009 school year alone, NLP provided 5,230 students with the incentives, support, and encouragement they needed to achieve their educational goals. In addition to the cheers and high fives received by all, 87 percent of these students also earned better grades on their report cards. Among them were many proud members of Cheryl Gibson’s fifth-grade class at Zavala Elementary. NLP has been a vital part of the classroom for 18 of the 28 years Gibson has taught at Zavala, and she’s been impressed by the program’s inclusiveness:
“There are plenty of programs just for kids who excel or struggle. What I like about Neighborhood Longhorns is that everyone is involved. There are lots of events where all Neighborhood Longhorns can go, just as long as they meet the goals the school and I have set for them. Kids who can do more, get to do more. But this is not a program that tells kids who are trying their best that they are not wanted if they don’t have straight A’s.”
This respect for individualism is a byproduct of NLP’s commitment to hands-on support, as Ruiz-Snowden is quick to point out. “We don’t just call up a school and say here’s 50 tickets to a basketball game, get me 50 kids. We work with principals and teachers at each school to understand their specific educational goals and how NLP can help. We don’t tell schools what to do or dictate standards. We’re there to help, not reinvent the wheel.”
Perhaps the most visible difference resulting from this one-to-one approach to educational support is the one that UT students and student athletes make as volunteer NLP tutors. Whether they are helping with homework or helping to build self-esteem, these UT role models learn firsthand how a little time and a few kind words can change a kid forever.
Here’s how Amir Emamian, a former NLP participant, later a volunteer student tutor, and now a full-time NLP Program Specialist, sums it up: “When I was in the third grade, the Neighborhood Longhorns Program made The University of Texas a reality for me. By becoming an NLP tutor I had the privilege of giving back. The NLP experience is not just talking about college, it’s about proving that it can really happen.”