Skip to Main Content

First Constantin Scholars Look Back on Four Years of UD
May 29, 2024
Constantin Scholar Martha Raborg, BA ’24, with Bishop Edward J. Burns and President Jonathan J. Sanford, PhD.

Four summers ago, the University of Dallas welcomed a small band of pioneers: the first cohort of incoming freshmen of the Constantin Scholars Program, a scholarship and bridge program for students who would be the first in their families to attend college. Some students had come from private Catholic schools with a good chance of seeing classmates again at UD; others came from public schools as populous as Coppell or as remote as Maypearl. They came to UD to prepare themselves variously for careers in medicine, education, business or other fields, but they all came to pursue a common dream.

Having overcome the academic and social challenges of UD’s college experience at their own paces, the first regular cohort of the Constantin Scholars program accomplished a major milestone this month: They walked across the stage to receive their degrees.

Funded by the Constantin Foundation and overseen by Director of Academic Success Matthew Spring, PhD ’15, the Constantin Scholars Program began in 2020. Along with scholarship support, the program includes a 5-week summer bridge period that doubles as an introduction to the academic rigor of UD and an extended orientation.

Ana Henriquez, MS, BS ’20, assistant director of the Constantin Scholars Program, says the benefits of the summer bridge program are more than academic. 

“When students attend the program, they learn the skill of asking for help and resources,” Henriquez says. “They also learn skills to achieve and surpass the high bars we set for all students at UD. Additionally, they make connections with future employers and mentors, and they interact with students who come to UD with similar assets and challenges as first-generation college attendees.”

Students say that the program not only put them on level ground with their peers academically but also gave them a sense of community and belonging when they began their first semester. Blessing Okereke, BS ’24, a biology major from Plano who plans to enter the medical field, is one of the Constantin Scholars who graduated this year. Okereke jumped into the UD community with both feet, eventually serving the Asian Student Association as treasurer, participating in the Dallas Refugee Project and tutoring younger Constantin Scholars. It all started with an early chance to make friends in her first year.

“For me, the Constantin Scholars program meant being able to have a social group and have people I could relate to,” Okereke said. “I didn’t feel isolated or embarrassed if I had any questions or didn’t understand what was going on in class. I had people to lean back on.”

The bridge program also prepares students for the Core Curriculum. After studying the classics from Beowulf to modernity over the summer of 2020, Annette Herrera ’25, a Constantin Scholar who came to UD from Seagoville, found herself well prepared for Lit Trad I in the fall. 

“As soon as I entered the fall semester and we were going over the same books again, it felt so much easier being at the same level as everyone else,” Herrera says. “I think I would have struggled a lot if I wasn’t a part of the program. It helped me tremendously.” 

Students in the summer bridge program take a course called The Seven Arts of Language which helps prepare them for UD intellectual life in the areas of grammar, rhetoric, logic, reading, writing, listening and speaking. They also participate in daily activities to familiarize them with UD staff and offices, similar to Disorientation but at a slower pace. In fact, Spring says, the program works so well that by the time the Constantin Scholars arrive for their actual freshman orientation, they are practically equipped to act as orientation leaders for their own peers. 

“It was really nice to have that exposure to different people on campus who were willing to help first generation students make that transition into college life,” says Bryan Velazquez, BA ’23, an interdisciplinary studies major who graduated early, received his master’s degree this year and now teaches in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD.

Participants are then provided with books and additional scholarship funding for their first semester and matched with an on-campus job. The Office of Academic Success works to pair Constantin Scholars with offices on campus where they will gain work experience and staff mentoring to set them up to succeed after graduation. In 2020 and 2021, Spring and his staff even provided opportunities for students to work remotely for well-known nonprofits such as Catholic Charities Dallas and St. Vincent de Paul North Texas. 

Maypearl High School graduate Eli Cervera, BA ’23 MS ’24, one of the original cohort, worked as an intern in UD’s Office of Personal Career Development (OPCD). Cervera, now an associate consultant at IPS Global, graduated with his BA early and remained at UD to pursue a master’s degree in finance.

“[The internship] exposed me to a lot of different people and the way different employers speak, which is really important, especially for those in business,” he says. “You have to be able to read people, communicate well and adapt. So I think that helped me a lot, and it led me to my job.” 

First-generation UD students, whether they attended the summer bridge program or not, also have the opportunity to apply for additional scholarship funding for subsequent years and to participate in the mentoring and small group program through the Office of Academic Success. 

The department employs first-generation students as mentors who run four different categories of the small group program. The most popular is the First-Gen Round Tables, where mentors set up “office hours” around campus to answer any academic questions students might have. Under the supervision of Judith Barrera, MEd, BA ’21, Academic Success Specialist, they also organize dinner discussion events on a variety of topics. 

Other mentors offer study halls, work as the marketing team for the first-gen initiatives, and partner with OPCD to match students with alumni who can help guide them through the transition into post-graduate life.

The Constantin Scholars Program seeks to develop a community of students, staff and faculty working together to help UD first-gen students rid themselves of what they call “imposter syndrome” and find a sense of belonging at UD.

“I felt like I was out of place, like I didn’t belong here, based on my background,” says Herrera. “I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be in this school and that everybody else seemed to be more intellectual or have a better background than me. They helped me see that I’m not the only one who feels that way, and that there were ways for me to gain that confidence. Now I see other first-gen students feeling the same way, and I try to help them out.”

As this first cohort of Constantin Scholars graduates, they are taking that sense of belonging and achievement from UD into their families, communities and workplaces. 

The Constantin Scholars of the 2020 cohort are:

  • Juanita Acosta, BA ’24 (psychology)

  • Christian de Leon, BA ’24 (business)

  • Blessing Okereke, BS ’24 (biology; minor in business; concentration in Spanish)

  • Bryan Velazquez, BA ’23 (interdisciplinary studies) MAT ’24 (teaching)

  • Martha Raborg, BA ’24 (business; concentrations in computer science and Spanish)

  • Elias Cervera, BA ’23 (business) MS ’24 (finance)

  • Annette Herrera ’25 (biology; concentration in Italian)

Trending
Jul 15, 2024

The PCAOB Scholars Program awards scholarships to outstanding students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate accounting degree programs.

May 20, 2024

The Cowan-Blakley Memorial Library was one of just 50 institutions around the country to receive a recent grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG).

Apr 29, 2024

The University of Dallas is the only Catholic university to receive an A+ grade from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

View more news

Subscribe
* Required Fields
Latest News
Jul 15, 2024

The PCAOB Scholars Program awards scholarships to outstanding students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate accounting degree programs.

May 20, 2024

The Cowan-Blakley Memorial Library was one of just 50 institutions around the country to receive a recent grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG).

Apr 29, 2024

The University of Dallas is the only Catholic university to receive an A+ grade from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

View full archive