Transitioning to college comes with enough challenges on its own. When Robert Vargas, Ilya Rosales and Tanya Alvarez came to UNLV in 2013 they faced the usual logistical issues navigating a new campus and new people, and figuring out how to pay for it all. For these three students, though, each wanted to find a way to serve their community while pursuing a path to success. Over the course of 4 years, each found their path; Robert committed himself to leadership, Ilya to academics, and Tanya to service.
The solution to balancing out all those disparate challenges, it turns out, was deft: The Engelstad Scholars Program. Today, all three scholars are currently employed full time at the non-profit organizations to which they were assigned during the program.
The Engelstad Program was established by the Engelstad Family Foundation through an endowment of $12.625 million to UNLV in 2009. The gift is the largest active scholarship in the university’s history and the largest active scholarship endowment in the history of the Nevada System of Higher Education. Scholars admitted to the program are required to complete 100 hours of community service annually through a partnering nonprofit organization.
The program affords an opportunity to serve the community and participate in civic engagement while receiving financial support. Following its core values of scholarship, leadership, and service, the program provides students with invaluable lessons that extend far beyond the classroom. Specifically, over the course of their four years they receive numerous opportunities for job training and professional development at their non-profit site, and a course on leadership development at UNLV.
"It’s important to realize the magnitude of the program you're enrolled in,” Vargas said. “It is much more than a simple scholarship with some required service — it's an opportunity to serve the local community and grow with an agency. By the end of your time as a scholar, you will look back and be amazed by what you achieved for our community and how you changed as a person.”
Vargas, who has his sights set on becoming a primary care physician, became the first person in his family to graduate college. He says support from Engelstad was crucial to his ability to graduate in four years.
“UNLV was the only school I applied to due to my family circumstances. What kept me going was the amount of support I got from UNLV. I debated heavily on dropping out my freshman year and am very thankful for the faculty and friends I had at the time who helped ground me, and make me realize that it was not the most suitable option for my future.”
The program’s hallmark is its progressive learning experience, which spans all four years the scholars are enrolled as undergraduates. Englestad students are encouraged to develop transferrable skills that will equip them to be future leaders. This includes reflection journals, peer discussions to trade ideas and inspiration, and attendance at program events and gatherings. Each semester of the learning experience is designed to provide new opportunities to learn and grow — in the first year, that means the scholars develop a better understanding of themselves as competent leaders in their communities, while the second-year students focus on the importance and impact of volunteerism within a community.
The program requires every student complete 100 hours of community service per academic year with one of 22 nonprofit organizations, and the students spent the next three-and-a-half years volunteering at their assigned site.
Vargas came into the program with no background in community service. At first it was a chore — something to check off his to-do list every week. As the program progressed, his attitude changed.
“It’s an opportunity for growth and leadership,” he said.
He was placed at Project 150, an organization serving homeless, displaced, and disadvantaged students around the Las Vegas Valley and in Reno.
“My greatest lesson has been understanding the scale of what being homeless entails,” Vargas said. “It has taught me to be a more compassionate individual. Working at Project 150 has only reinforced my passion for these teens, and has steered me into learning more about how I can help them as a future healthcare provider.”
Rosales went to work at Three Square, a food bank that provides assistance to people in the valley and surrounding areas. She explored the gap between the eligible population of senior citizens who qualify to receive food stamps and the actual number of people doing so, for her Capstone project. The Engelstad Capstone is a culminating project that fourth-year students undertake to present to their peers and non-profits about a specific project they worked on, and their academic and professional development throughout the program.
“I looked into the reasoning why there would be so many eligible seniors that just wouldn’t apply for [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], even if they had a chance to do so. It might be a combination of factors, such as being misinformed about welfare, relying in other programs such as Meals on Wheels, not applying because they knew they wouldn’t get much benefits, and just not knowing they were eligible in the first place.”
Olive Crest is an organization dedicated to preventing child abuse. Alvarez didn’t think her behind-the-scenes work was making a difference. She was not directly involved with the children at the organization, but during her time there she realized that even the small tasks make an impact.
“It was no longer, ‘I have to complete my hours for Engelstad,’ but rather ‘Let’s see what days and times I can come in that would be most beneficial to them. I think the moment when my supervisor and colleagues hugged me, thanked me, and said that they appreciated what I did for them was when I realized that the meaning/impact behind my service was much greater than just the duties required of me as a scholar.”
Thanks to her time at Olive Crest, Alvarez has narrowed her career path down to working in law enforcement, or working at a nonprofit.
“I want to be the pillar that supports those that seek to make a difference in the world,” she said.