Denise O'Gara was 19 years old when she hit Omaha in 1972, suitcase in one hand and electric typewriter in the other. She had $800 saved from her $1.60-an-hour, minimum-wage job as a cashier at a discount store in Florida, where her parents lived. She intended to make something of herself. “I grew up poor,” she said, “but I was not going to be poor forever.”
O'Gara got her shot when she learned of an innovative scholarship program launching that fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It would pay full tuition and fees for 100 bright but poverty-stricken students.
The Goodrich program — named in honor of the late State Sen. Glenn Goodrich, who helped wheedle money from state coffers for its support — put O'Gara on the path toward a master's degree in guidance and counseling and a career of more than three decades as a community counselor in Omaha.
Forty years later, she is among more than 1,400 alumni who have earned degrees and now contribute to their communities as lawyers, educators, nurses, doctors, social workers, artists, police officers, writers and others.
The program is working to improve records of its alumni and recently established a Facebook page to connect students with alumni, said faculty member Michael Carroll.
Carroll quickly ticked off a number of alumni, including perhaps a dozen lawyers in Nebraska, a half-dozen teachers, and people who have served on local governing boards, including: Mark Martinez, a former Omaha Public Schools board member who now is U.S. marshal for Nebraska; Teresa Coleman Hunter, who heads the Family Housing Advisory Service; Mark Fleisher, a psychiatry professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; Larry P. Bradley, a managerial partner with KPMG in New York City; Bart Vargas, a local artist; Troy Romero, who became a Goodrich faculty member; and Randy Stevenson, a partner with Omaha's Baird Holm law firm.
The Goodrich program is not simply a scholarship payment. Recognizing that most of its students are the first in their families to attend college, and thus lack role models and support for an unfamiliar experience, the Goodrich program requires students to take a common core of classes during their freshman and sophomore years.
It also has half a dozen faculty members permanently assigned to the program to work closely with the students and help catch them when they stumble.
“They called it the learning center,” O'Gara recalled. “You could get tutoring help, you could get counseling, you could just get people to talk to. It felt like a family, and I loved it.”
The award-winning program eventually proved so successful that it became the model for the Thompson Learning Communities, which rolled out the concept to all University of Nebraska undergraduate campuses in 2008.
Financed by the Susan T. Buffett Foundation, the Thompson program provides scholarships each year for hundreds of students, many of whom live and study together at UNO, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Kearney. UNO alone has 817 Thompson scholars this year.
“It was visionary when it began, and it remains visionary to this day,” UNO Chancellor John Christensen said of the Goodrich program.
UNO marked the program's 40th anniversary last week during an invitation-only program. The event was part of a yearlong anniversary observance of UNO's College of Public Affairs and Community Service, also established in 1972. The Goodrich program is an academic department within the college.
Gregory Brown, a retired middle-school art teacher and administrator from Omaha, is another member of the first Goodrich class.
At the time, he had no clue the program would be anything more than an experiment.
“You didn't know if the program was going to go forever — you knew you were in the program and your college was paid for,” he said. “I never knew it was going to go this far.”
He laughed when he recalled a faculty-led bus trip to Washington, D.C.
“They were kind of hippie-like people. They were fun to be around,” he said.
The Goodrich program remains smaller and more selective than the Thompson program, said Imafedia Okhamafe, a philosophy professor who chairs the Goodrich program.
After being qualified through UNO's financial aid office, the top 65 to 70 students — the number varies year to year — are chosen based on academic record, references, a personal interview and an essay.
This year, 68 freshmen were selected for the program. In all, 304 Goodrich scholars currently attend UNO. It costs about $2 million per year for faculty salaries, scholarships and other expenses. The number of scholarships is fewer than offered in the past, in part to allow some funds to be used for book allowances and summer school.
In recent years, the program has had a 90 percent retention rate for freshmen who return for their sophomore years, compared to a 73 percent retention rate for UNO as a whole, Okhamafe said. About two-thirds of the scholars earn degrees within six years.
O'Gara actually had to wait until the fall of 1973 to join the Goodrich program. She hadn't lived in Omaha long enough to qualify as a Nebraska resident.
She attended UNO part-time her first year and caught up with the rest of her class by taking summer classes. She lived in a tiny apartment and struggled to pay her $75 per month rent. She worked fast food. She worked in a factory. She worked as a sales clerk in a bridal salon.
“I was not enjoying the poverty thing. I had no TV, no car, no phone,” O'Gara said. “I was dead serious about getting out of that situation.”
Brown, who eventually earned a master's degree in computer science, said Goodrich made the difference for him.
“Otherwise, you were just a number,” he said. “No one cared about you out there except for the Goodrich program.”
“It was good — it was way beyond good,” he said. “Matter of fact, when I (taught) school, whenever I ran across a kid talking about going to college, I'd ask, 'Have you thought about Goodrich?'”
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