UT can connect students to local community

Khadeeja Shah

Although Austin boasts a diverse population, UT is very isolated from the rest of the city. Students have their own shopping centers on The Drag, and most undergraduates don’t venture off the Forty Acres much except to explore the infamous 6th Street. 

Additionally, campus itself isn’t very accessible — traffic and ridiculous parking fees make visiting a nuisance, so Austin residents don’t benefit from having such a prestigious institution right in their backyard. UT has a responsibility to serve its population by better connecting students with the city through expanding existing outreach and volunteer initiatives to include local high schools. 

UT currently sends students to elementary schools to mentor and tutor students as part of the Neighborhood Longhorns Program. However, adding a division to include high schoolers would facilitate a stronger connection between UT and Austin’s residents as well as benefit both populations. College students are much closer in age to high schoolers than elementary schoolers and can understand the struggles of applying to college and getting prepared to pursue higher education. UT undergraduates could act as mentors to the high schoolers by offering advice, study tips and exposure to different areas of study. In return, they would gain volunteer experience and exposure to different parts of the city.

While many organizations individually send volunteers to mentor students in Austin high schools, it can be difficult to accumulate the resources to consistently reach out to schools. “I think getting in touch with the schools has been the hardest,” said Shrestha Datta, a neuroscience freshman and a member of Longhorn Brain Bee. “Having a connection with the Austin high schools through UT would have made the process (of reaching out to schools) faster.” 

A more centralized, universitywide effort to connect with these students would have far more resources at its disposal, thus potentially increasing its scope and impact. This way, students wouldn’t have to be part of a certain club or organization to get involved — by virtue of being a student at UT, they would be able to participate. 

“I definitely think more emphasis should be put on outreach and mentorship, especially for low-income students and schools that don’t have the typical ‘connections’ accessible to some other high school students,” said Echo Nattinger, government and Plan II freshman. Long-term mentorship would close the information gap between those who attend under-resourced schools and other students. 

Leslie Blair, executive director of communications in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, believes “a sustained outreach effort, as opposed to short-term initiatives like Explore UT, would be valuable,” especially for students from schools that are understaffed and under-resourced. College students could fill in some of the gaps left by high school counselors that might not be able to give every student individualized attention.

If such a program were to be implemented, it should be in partnership with Austin high schools. Each school has different programs and syllabi, so volunteers would have to be trained accordingly. Sustained interaction with the high schoolers would allow the undergraduates to act as role models for younger students. Additionally, college students would gain volunteer experience and exposure to parts of Austin they might not have otherwise interacted with while simultaneously fulfilling a mentorship need in the Austin community.

Instituting such a program would allow UT to build a legacy of outreach and encourage more local students to attend something mutually beneficial for college students and high schoolers alike.

Shah is a neuroscience freshman from Austin.