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Q&A: UT Alumnus Reflects on Early Beginnings of Neighborhood Longhorns Program

By Jessica Sinn

image of howard nirken
Howard Nirken (right) with DDCE Development Director Greg Perrin at an NLP fundraiser

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 to help get a large-scale education incentive program up and running. To this day he is a proud supporter of the Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP), which serves thousands of economically-disadvantaged students (grades 2-8) from Title I AISD schools.

We caught up with Nirken to learn more about the early beginnings of the NLP, his fondest UT memory, and his passion for getting underserved youth hooked on education.

How did you get involved in the NLP?

I was introduced to Donna Lopiano and Jody Conradt when UT’s Athletics Department was in the infant stage of developing the Neighborhood Longhorns Program. Dr. Lopiano, who was the Women’s Athletic Director at that time, set up bi-weekly meetings with me to discuss and develop the initiative.

One of the department’s main concerns was whether we could get enough volunteers to mentor the children. Dr. Lopiano asked me to serve as the student volunteer coordinator and I had the privilege of serving in that capacity until I graduated from the law school and LBJ School in 1997. I even wrote a policy review of the NLP for one of my classes while at the LBJ School.

After graduating, the university appointed me to the NLP Advisory Board and I still serve as an advisor on that board today (and still, in addition to fundraising for the NLP, focus on ensuring that the NLP has enough mentors and volunteers to serve its thousands of participants).

Why are you passionate about helping underserved students enter the college pipeline?

I am a true believer that all children when given opportunities to succeed can and will excel.  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 playing field, then we not only lose a current generation of kids, we potentially lose multiple generations to come.

Now that the NLP is in its 25th year, I have had the good fortune to meet young adults, who participated in the NLP while in elementary and middle school.  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.  It is fact and not theory that a better educated society is a better society and therefore we have a social contract with our community to ensure we do what we can to help the next generation succeed.

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Neighborhood Longhorns discovering the wonders of science at a summer STEM camp at UT.

Do you have a favorite NLP activity?

The annual NLP scholarship banquet is my favorite NLP activity. It is a chance for me to see the smile on the children and their parent’s or guardian’s faces when our NLP participants are awarded scholarships for: having perfect attendance in school, raising their grade-point average each academic period, and matriculating to their next grade level reading comprehension.

What is your favorite UT memory?

While there are so many, my favorite memory was a lunch meeting with the late, great congressman J.J. “Jake” Pickle.  My friends were unaware of my lunch appointment with the congressman and thought it would be a funny prank if they put Vaseline, birdseed and molasses all over my car. Unexplainably that was considered a humorous prank back in the day.

Not knowing what my friends had done prior to the time I had to leave for the lunch (and therefore could not have it cleaned), I parked my car a block away and out of sight from the restaurant.  We had a great lunch where the congressman shared stories about his time as UT student body president in 1937, his congressional fights for civil rights and his relationship with President Johnson.

Unbeknownst to me, until we walked outside after we finished lunch, Jake informed me that I needed to give him a ride back to his local congressional office.  I did my best to explain the situation on the long walk to the car, but I am sure he did not fully appreciate the situation as he said in his memorable Texas accent, “Nirken—there’s birdseed on your car,” (for the record, he also could not open the passenger door due to the Vaseline on the passenger handle).

He was truly kind to make light of the entire situation and had a smile on his face as I had to drive him back to his office with all of my car windows down (as I could not otherwise see my side mirrors due to the said birdseed on the passenger window). He waived fondly to his chuckling constituents as we drove through downtown and when I dropped him off he could not have been more gracious.  I knew I had clearly made a lasting impression on him as I later served as the last LBJ School “Pickle Intern” in Washington D.C. during Jake’s final summer in Congress, and when he retired and moved back to Austin I considered him a dear friend until his death.

 What was you’re proudest accomplishment during your time at UT?

Being part of the Neighborhood Longhorns Program, establishing the University of Texas Volunteer Center and leading the effort to renovate Gregory Gym.

What activities were you involved in at UT?

Student Government, Friar Society, Silver Spurs, Zeta Beta Tau/Interfraternity Council, and the Student Involvement Committee of the Ex-Student’s Association. These organizations provided me leadership roles to participate in and promote volunteer opportunities to my fellow students.

Anything else you would like to add?

It is hard to believe that 25 years have gone by since the inception of the NLP.  86,000-plus kids have participated and more than $600,000 in scholarships have been awarded.  Tens of Thousands of volunteer hours have been provided by UT students and millions of dollars have been donated by so many unbelievable sponsors.

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. It is my hope that others will discover the true Pre-K to PHD mission of the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement as it gives yet another reason to truly be a proud alumni of our University of Texas at Austin.