Program for first-generation grads a success


Brandon White is among the first group of Florida Opportunity Scholars to graduate this semester from the University of Florida. The scholarships are awarded to first-generation college students, and 189 of the recipients are expected to graduate this weekend.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 12:40 a.m.

Brandon White is the third of four children in his family and the only one to graduate from high school. As part of the Florida Opportunity Scholars program for first-generation college students, he received a full scholarship to attend the University of Florida.

"Now I'll be the first to graduate from college," said the 23-year-old Panama City native.

White is among 189 students graduating this weekend who represent the first major batch of Florida Opportunity Scholars to earn degrees at UF. The program provides tuition and room and board to qualified students whose families earn $40,000 or less and who are the first in their families to attend college.

UF introduced the program in 2006 in part to improve its ethnic and economic diversity. The program has helped the university increase the percentage of black undergraduates by 12.6 percent and Hispanic undergraduates by 19.1 percent from fall 2005 to fall 2009.

"These are real increases that have occurred without affirmative action," UF President Bernie Machen told trustees at a retreat earlier this year.

The Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust highlighted the program in a report about public institutions failing to serve low-income and minority students. UF was cited among a small group of public institutions that won high marks on equity, with the program getting part of the credit.

But funding has been an issue. Machen pledged in 2008 to donate $285,000 in bonuses and Gator football coach Urban Meyer committed last year to contributing $1 million over the course of his new contract, but UF Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin said the program is still financially limited to accepting another 400 students this year.

She pointed to the graduation rate of program participants as an indication of its success. UF originally awarded scholarships to 444 students, three-quarters of whom are projected to graduate by the end of the year. In comparison, UF's overall four-year graduation rate is 58 percent.

"As a cohort, these students are extremely serious about studies," Telles-Irvin said. "They see this as a tremendous opportunity, one that they want to take full advantage of."

White certainly fits that bill. He majored in business management and is graduating with honors. In his time at UF, he served as budget chairman for Student Government and interned for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, in Washington.

Now he plans to go to law school, deciding between UF and William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. His ambition is to enter public service, something he said is made more realistic by the fact that he isn't carrying the college-loan debt that would force him into a higher-paying area of law.

"Public service isn't going to make me a millionaire, but it will make me happy," he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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