Friday, December 8, 2023

Top Scholar program celebrates 10 years of advancing academic excellence at UTSA

Top Scholar program celebrates 10 years of advancing academic excellence at UTSA

SEPTEMBER 1, 2023 — The UTSA Top Scholar program is celebrating its 10th year of drawing some of the state’s most competitive students to UTSA. Housed within the Honors College, Top Scholar is the university’s premier competitive scholarship program and is recognized across Texas for developing award-winning and academically talented student leaders.

UTSA Top Scholars receive a four-year, comprehensive scholarship that provides funding for tuition, fees, on-campus housing, and study away opportunities. The students receive dedicated support and the ability to customize their academic, leadership, study abroad and community service experiences.

The program began in 2013 with five students in its first cohort. UTSA Honors College Assistant Dean for Special Programs Kristi Meyer built the program and continues to lead it with one goal in mind — to recruit driven, talented and high achieving students from across Texas to UTSA. For many of these highly competitive students, UTSA would not have been on their radar at all, had it not been for the Top Scholar program.

In return for its investment, UTSA gets a highly motivated and deeply engaged community of students who “have been instrumental in contributing to the dramatic shift we have seen in the overall quality and caliber of students who choose UTSA over many other options, including the Ivy leagues,” Meyer said.

The program now welcomes 10 new incoming first-year students each fall semester. These students serve as ambassadors for the university and are recognized as exemplary Roadrunners.

To date, 49 Top Scholars have graduated from UTSA. Half have gone on to graduate school at prestigious institutions such as Harvard Law, UT Austin, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Baylor School of Medicine.

The students have won nationally competitive awards and work at places like Google, USAA, Chevron, the U.S. Department of Defense and Sandia National Labs.

Linda McNulty Perez (née McNulty) ’18 was in the second cohort of Top Scholars. Majoring in classics and minoring in biology and religious studies, Perez was UTSA’s first undergraduate student selected to participate in the visiting student program at the University of Oxford.

This experience fueled her passion for classics and her decision to pursue graduate studies.

Perez received a full ride to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton University and plans to be a professional archaeologist once she graduates. She credits the Top Scholar program for much of her success.  

“The Top Scholar program's support for research and travel supported me through the rigorous process of preparing for graduate school applications, which demanded that I gain experience in undergraduate research and learn multiple languages,” said McNulty Perez. “Successfully undergoing that preparatory process would have been inconceivable without the hands-on support, both professional and financial, from the program and its affiliates on campus.”

Kurt Johnson ’21 met the love of his life, Amber Chin ’21, in the Top Scholar program. He also found an incredible community for support and friendship.

"The Top Scholar program provided a supportive environment that encouraged me to try new experiences,” he said. "I really appreciated that while all the scholars undertake rigorous and impressive classes and opportunities in their fields, everyone is also very open to helping out fellow students and learning together. Even after graduating, I’ve gotten a lot of guidance from Kristi and fellow alumni.”

Johnson was very involved on and off campus, including serving as vice president of the UTSA chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and as a member of two research labs. He also interned abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

After graduating from UTSA with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Johnson became an engineer at Southwest Research Institute. He and Chin, who works for Accenture Federal Services as a machine learning engineer, remain active with the Honors College and the Top Scholar program, including serving as mentors to current scholars.

Sara Zott (née Dibrell) ’18, who recently earned her doctoral degree in organic chemistry from Caltech, said the Top Scholar program provided her with great mentors.

“I had mentors who genuinely cared about me and my future and consistently guided and pushed me,” Zott said.

While at UTSA, Zott studied with Doug Frantz, the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and director of the Frantz Lab. Her experience conducting cutting-edge research in Frantz’s lab earned Zott the honor of becoming the second student in UTSA history to receive the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most competitive scholarships awarded to undergraduates pursuing math and science degrees across the U.S. In her last semester at UTSA, Zott received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provided $90,000 in funding to support her Ph.D. at Caltech.

The hands-on research under the mentorship of a world-class faculty scholar like Frantz, combined with the support from the Top Scholar program, was critical to earning these awards.

“The Top Scholar program helped me go to conferences to present my work, and to develop the skills outside of academics that I needed to succeed,” said Zott. “Being a part of the program is a major reason I decided to go to graduate school.”

Zott now works as a senior scientist in discovery chemistry at the biopharmaceutical company Merck.

Learn more about the UTSA Honors College and its Top Scholar program.

Sharon Nichols, professor and chair of the UTSA Department of Educational Psychology, has served as a Top Scholar mentor since 2018. 

“The Top Scholar program is an innovative and engaging program that provides students academic opportunities beyond their traditional course work in areas they hope to pursue beyond college,” said Nichols. “I have found students to be incredibly motivated and academically ambitious and curious. It is a privilege to be able to provide mentorship, academic support and guidance for these talented students.”

Jill Fleuriet, vice provost for honors education and distinguished teaching professor in anthropology at UTSA, echoes Nichols’ sentiment.

“The Top Scholars and their faculty mentors share intellectual passions. The faculty member teaches practical and professional skills during the life of a research project,” she said. “We are proud of the significant contributions the scholars have made within and outside of the Honors community, from national awards and servant leadership to community-engaged projects. Top Scholars have provided significant contributions to UTSA as the university has grown into a premier public research university. The sky is the limit on the positive impact UTSA Top Scholars will make as engaged, global citizens working to make a difference in their families, communities and society.”

The Top Scholar program begins accepting applications today. The deadline to apply to the program is December 1, 2023.

Rebeca Gomez and KC Gonzalez

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