One of the many cohorts of Goodrich scholars (this one from 2018) at the University of Omaha campus. (Courtesy of Goodrich Scholarship Program)
OMAHA — Marty Martinez recalls darting off the city bus with his shaggy hair, bell-bottoms and pointed-collar shirt, to get to his first humanities class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He was 18 at the time, a fresh graduate of South High’s Class of 1972.
His hometown was still reeling from recent race riots. Civil unrest rattled the nation.
A groundbreaking University of Nebraska Regents Commission report from two years earlier had proclaimed an “extreme sense of urgency” to narrow the racial divide in the state and recruit historically cut off low-income and diverse populations.
It was in that climate the Goodrich Scholarship Program was born, at first opening the higher education door for Martinez and about 80 others in that inaugural cohort. The program provided free UNO tuition for a bachelor’s degree and an innovative set of support services.
Viewed then as a bold experiment, the Nebraska Legislature appropriated $266,832 for the first year of the initiative, championed by then-State Sen. Glenn Goodrich.
Skepticism swirled around the “imaginative” yet “rigorous” academic curriculum designed by renowned scholar Hubert Locke, who had been a top aide to Detroit’s police commissioner during that city’s historic 1967 racial outbreak.
Long-term continuation of the new program was anything but guaranteed.
But today, 50 years later, the state-funded Goodrich program is still going — infused this academic year with about $2.7 million for student tuition and related faculty and staff salaries.
Some 3,500 students have since followed Martinez into the program that has launched the careers of local elected officials, lawyers, physicians, professors, accountants, nonprofit leaders and business owners.
From the perspective of John Bartle, dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service, the “experiment” of 1972 has paid off.
”It absolutely has worked,” Bartle said of the program that falls within his multi-department domain. “I am an economist, and the returns on investment are enormous. The Goodrich success rate is off the charts.”
Bucking brain drain
Consider these new findings from an analysis by UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research based on census and other data as well as a survey of students and alumni:
On average, the six-year graduation rate for Goodrich scholars is 81%, compared to 52% for UNO’s general population.
That’s even with a high ratio of first-generation college students. Of current Goodrich scholars, 74% are the first generation in their families to attend a university, compared to the 37% overall that UNO reports.
About half of the more than 2,100 Goodrich scholarship recipients who have earned an undergraduate degree pursued higher education in fields including medicine and law.
About 78% of alumni surveyed stayed to work and live in Nebraska, 69% in the metro Omaha area — bucking state “brain drain” trends, said CPAR director Josie Gatti Schafer.
Break the cycle
What can’t be quantified as well, but is a key public benefit, is that the program breaks cycles of poverty, said Dr. Troy Romero, chair of the program who himself is a Goodrich graduate.
Take Martinez and the Rev. Darryl Eure, for example. Both were first-generation college students in the original Goodrich cohort, setting a new pace and expectation for siblings and relatives.
Even without a household tradition to help navigate the system, each graduated and went on to thrive in social service and education careers, pushing countless other North and South Omaha youths toward college degrees or other contributing careers.
They are among numerous students and graduates interviewed for this story, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, who said they might have delayed or not gone to college at all without the financial boost of the Goodrich program.
And achieving that bachelor’s degree makes, on average, an $18,526 difference in the annual median income of a Nebraskan, says Schafer.
In the trash can
Josefina Loza, now 40, remembers discovering college acceptance letters in her parents’ trash can when she was in high school. She learned that her mom and dad tossed them to save her from disappointment, as they couldn’t afford to send her to a university.
Loza is the oldest of six kids. Her dad was an immigrant who worked in a meat packinghouse. No one in her family, from among either her dad’s 15 siblings or her mom’s eight, had yet gone to college.
She said her dad remained “terrified” of her being at UNO, despite the full ride offered via the Goodrich program. It wasn’t until he saw Loza’s first byline on a story in the Omaha World-Herald, where she worked while pursuing her journalism degree, that his anxiety eased. “He was bursting with pride,” she said.
Loza and others said the program’s network of support — including tutors and a “GO” student activity group — is a glue that helped keep “Goodrichers” engaged in university life.
“Money alone doesn’t get you through the system,” said Romero, the chair who was part of the 1994 Goodrich cohort.
Since its early years, the program has had a home base on campus where students can congregate, use university tools such as computers and easily find faculty whose job includes keeping scholars on track and teaching Goodrich-specific courses.
Some alumni said they bristled at first at taking the few classes required of each Goodrich group during its first two years. But the courses count as college credits in areas such as humanities and social sciences. And in the end, alumni said that they came to value and retain teachings of such subjects as critical thinking and autobiographical writing, where they learned more deeply about other cultures, opinions and each other.
Money alone doesn’t get you through the system.
– Troy Romero, 10th chair of UNO Goodrich Scholarship Program
Student after student said in testimonies marking the program’s golden anniversary that fellow Goodrich classmates and professors helped push them over the finish line — and many friendships have remained tight long after graduation.
“Academic parenting” is how Cynthia Robinson, now chair of UNO Black Studies, describes the Goodrich touch that nudged her through undergraduate and doctoral degrees after she had dropped out of college years earlier.
She said her gain was more than the financial assist.
“I needed the mentoring. I needed the accountability, the social skills — Goodrich taught me how to talk about cultural and racial diversity without turning people off.”
Even after graduation, mentoring continued. She said Goodrich professor Pam Smith, for instance, coached her through her Ph.D. and campus promotions.
Rural lawyer in the making
Makenna Welke, a current Goodrich student who grew up on a ranch near O’Neill, Nebraska, called the program “life-changing.”
She said she appreciated sharing tidbits of rural life with her urban friends, including that their state was second in the nation for most cattle.
Welke credits Goodrich faculty for the path she’s on to her dream job: practicing law on her hometown’s rural turf. Of the state’s 93 counties, the Nebraska Bar Association reports, 12 don’t have even one lawyer, and another 18 rural counties have fewer than four.
Welke intends to change that.
“They really guided me,” she said of Romero and retired Goodrich faculty member Mike Carroll, who pulled her into a pre-law Goodrich program they helped create and coordinate.
That initiative sprang from a meeting called years ago by Mark Martinez, a Goodrich alumnus and former U.S. marshal for Nebraska. Since 2008, the program has increased diversity in the state’s legal profession — in 2016 winning the State Bar Association’s Diversity Award.
Over the decades, the Goodrich program has won other praise.
In 1995, it earned the highest award given by the N.U. system to one of its departments. It became a model for the larger and privately funded Thompson Learning Community, which since 2008 has been financed by the Susan T. Buffett Foundation and serves thousands of students throughout the NU system and state public colleges.
To be sure, not all has been smooth sailing.
Budget cuts have reduced the number of new full-ride scholarships offered each year from about 80 (and as high as about 90) to the current 60.
State dollars once available for student book expenses have dwindled, and now Goodrich alumni help cover such expenses through donations to the NU Foundation.
Bartle has at times had to shift funds to pay for new retention efforts. Goodrich recently hired a math coach, for example. One Goodrich staff member, a student services specialist, is a licensed mental health therapist.
“I don’t fear for the Goodrich budget, specifically,” Bartle said. “I do fear for my ability to cover some of the needs for Goodrich.”
He said his “pie in the sky” wish would be to double, to 120, the number of student scholars and to start recruiting more from outside the metro area.
“Not only is it a return in terms of financial, but these folks stay in Nebraska” and help churn the economy, said Bartle.
That includes graduates such as Roxana Cortes-Mills, now 31 and a lawyer at the Nebraska Immigrant Legal Center.
She said she came out of the Goodrich program’s autobiographical writing class realizing that public service in the field of law is what she was meant to do. Faculty and mentors in the Goodrich program set up visits to NU College of Law classes and helped edit law school applications.
“It opened up opportunities and redefined what success looked like for my family,” she said, adding that her younger sister was a Goodrich scholar and now is finishing her doctorate in physical therapy at UNMC.
Eure, whose career has stretched decades in Omaha, said he’d just come off a stint in the military when he ran into his former Central High teacher Wilda Stephenson, who later became chair of the Goodrich program. She recruited him and his brother to be in that original scholarship group.
Eure recalled negative chatter calling the new program a “free ride for kids who didn’t deserve it.”
“But for us,” he said, “it was about the best thing that could happen.”
While enrolled at UNO, Eure also worked as a supervisor at a drug rehabilitation halfway house and, upon graduation, continued community work at the Urban League of Nebraska. Today he remains a minister.
One step better
He said two of his brothers also graduated from UNO, one with a Goodrich scholarship, and together they helped set an example for younger generations. His wife was a college graduate, as were their two children.
“We wanted them to follow in our footsteps and in fact do one step better,” said Eure.
As for Marty Martinez, he’s technically retired but could not keep from returning part time to his old job helping struggling students and single parents at Metropolitan Community College.
He thinks back to his own summer after high school graduation, when community leader and then-UNO counselor Jim Ramirez sought him out and personally drove him to take a college entrance exam.
That nudge and the Goodrich scholarship spared him from joining family and friends lugging hides at a packinghouse. Martinez went on to get a master’s degree in education.
He sees a bit of himself in each new student he counsels and says they usually just need the right tools to pivot to success.
Said Martinez: “Goodrich made me believe in myself and made me feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ And so can they.”
Graduate pays it forward
Omaha native Larry Bradley oversees 90,000 people in more than 140 countries employed by a Big Four accounting firm that generates more than $30 billion in global revenue.
But as an undergraduate four decades ago at UNO, he sometimes lacked cash for a textbook.
He knew back then, though, that he could lean on the emergency stash that Goodrich Scholarship faculty set aside for students in need. It was part of the program’s support system that helped recipients stay on course — in some cases even preventing a dropout.
That extra hand is among the reasons Bradley, now age 61 and global head of auditing for KPMG International, has never forgotten his Goodrich roots. He champions the model and pays it forward by helping to cover book and summer school expenses for students who came behind him.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to continue to support the mission of Goodrich,” said Bradley, now living in New York with his wife, Cindy, also an Omaha native. “Without this program, I wouldn’t be successful in my career.”
Bradley, who graduated from Roncalli High in 1979, and in 1983 from UNO, will be among the more than 600 expected to attend this Friday’s 50th anniversary celebration. The event at the Sapp Field House marks the success of a program named after Nebraska lawmaker Glenn Goodrich, who pushed for state funding to raise enrollment at UNO of low-income and diverse populations.
Bradley, who climbed to a top spot in the global accounting enterprise, is a go-to for financial commentary, but he came from a humble background and needed financial assistance to go to college.
As a white male studying amid a cultural mix of classmates, he said he grew to appreciate “diversity, equity and inclusion” even before it became a buzzword.
Those college years shaped his ideals, he said, and led to service on national boards such as Bottom Line, a program that helps students from low-income backgrounds get into college and graduate.
“If not for Goodrich, if not for my experiences, maybe I’d be donating money to the symphony or the ballet or the arts, not that they aren’t important,” said Bradley. “But I have an obligation to give back to the organization that allowed me to get where I am.”
Nebraska Examiner Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez is also an alumna of the Goodrich program.
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