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Kansas State University

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Scholar starter

Anita Cortez has a track record of helping students flourish


Anita Cortez's efforts to turn students into scholars started with one undergraduate, one professor and a belief in the power of beginning.

"It was an immediate match," she said of Aranda Jones, an elementary education major from Salina, and Marjorie Hancock, a professor of elementary education, who had approached Cortez looking for student help on a research project. (Jones graduated in December 2002.) At the end of the school year, Jones and Hancock presented their results to an informal group of faculty members.

The next year Cortez matched a journalism student with a faculty mentor, and then she encountered a physics professor who had a National Science Foundation grant with a student-development component.

"We realized we were both trying to do the same thing," Cortez said: To provide structured, faculty-supported scholarly opportunities for students who have not been well represented in higher education in Kansas.

To keep the program going in its early years, Cortez "went from dean to dean" to fund students in their respective colleges. "Luckily, the deans did support me."

"Anita's dedication and tenacity have helped make K-State a welcoming place for developing scholars of incredibly diverse backgrounds," said M. Duane Nellis, university provost and senior vice president. "She makes good on the K-State promise to support students in their studies here and to prepare them for distinguished careers after graduation, whether in a profession or academia."

The Developing Scholars Program got off to a formal start in 2000, with 20 students. Steadier funding came from the first pool of Targeted Excellence grants, which provided five years of support. Now in its ninth year, the program finds Cortez looking after more than 60 students in disciplines as diverse as English and veterinary medicine.

"We're bursting at the seams right now," she said. "We've been around long enough that students bring their siblings and friends to us." Such word-of-mouth proves the program's appeal, but Cortez is torn between expanding to serve deserving students and preserving the close-knit, family-like aspect. "We don't want to just grow it for numbers."

But other numbers prove the value of Cortez' work: Three-quarters of participants graduate in five years, including those who arrive with lower ACT scores. Of three program alums in medical school, one already is in residency. One student was a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship last year. And with funding from Hills Pet Nutrition, six students have gone on to study veterinary medicine.

"We've been able to get underrepresented students into vet med, which has needed such a pathway," Cortez said. "That's worked beautifully."

Cortez has a record of serving under-represented students at K-State since arriving in 1985. Her most recent post was as coordinator for the PILOTS program, designed for the retention of at-risk freshmen, from 1994-2006. She received the Commerce Bank Presidential Award for Distinguished Service to Multicultural Education in 2002.

"We want students who are going to be serious once we get them," she said. "Self-confidence and a sense of purpose equal motivation."