(Original article published January 21 on the FlaLaw Website: http://www.law.ufl.edu/flalaw/2014/01/uf-law-promotes-florida-opportunity-scholars/)

By Francie Weinberg (4JM)

On a cool November evening in the foyer of the Martin H. Levin Advocacy Center, University of Florida law faculty and staff mingled with potential law students over warm hors d’oeuvres. Current law students smiled and shared stories of the numerous opportunities made possible by the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program.

The program held its first-ever reception for scholars interested in law school at UF Law on Nov. 14 and nearly 30 students ranging from freshmen to graduating seniors interacted with current students, faculty and staff to get a taste of life at UF Law.

The Florida Opportunity Scholars Program is an initiative to ensure first-generation students from low-income backgrounds have the resources to attend UF and receive an undergraduate degree. The goal of the program is to retain these students and promote graduation at rates equal to or greater than the undergraduate population at large, according to Leslie Pendleton, director of the program.

“I became a Florida Opportunity Scholar when I entered UF my freshman year in fall 2007,” said Mai Le (3L). “Six years later, I am about to graduate from UF Law. FOS eased my family’s financial concerns about college and allowed me to fully focus on academics.  I come from a humble background, but I have worked hard to get where I am today. FOS has helped give me the opportunity to reach my goal of becoming an attorney.”

The program began in 2006 and has grown tremendously in nearly eight years, with around 300 scholarships given out every year. There are roughly 1,300 students currently enrolled in the program and an alumni base of nearly 1,200.

“The Machen FOS Program gives talented and ambitious high school graduates the opportunity to pursue a college degree, hopefully graduate debt-free, and then work toward their long-term career goals,” UF Law Dean Robert Jerry said. “Without the FOS opportunity, most of these students would not have been able to take that very first step through the door to a degree at UF.”

The program is set up to offer opportunities specific to each year of college: Freshmen are assigned a peer mentor and are required to take First-Year Florida, a one-credit class that provides first-year students the necessary tools to achieve academic success. In their second year, students are offered career planning workshops that teach resume skills and how to decide if a major is a good fit. In the third and fourth years of college, students have an opportunity to participate in the Florida Opportunity Scholars Academy of Leadership as well as other leadership development opportunities.

“Since no one in their families has gone to college, transitioning can be an eye-opening experience,” Pendleton said. “We help and coach students about preparing for what they’re going to do when they graduate. We want them to have a plan for what comes next.”

Of the 2,914 scholars supported since the program began, 152 of them have chosen to pursue graduate or professional degrees at UF. Of these, 11 students have enrolled at UF Law. Two scholars have already graduated from the law school and act as mentors to incoming or enrolled UF Law Opportunity Scholars.

“Part of our relationship with the law school is that several of our students aspire to go to law school and work in a career as a lawyer so we want to help them make an educated decision,” Pendleton said. “They don’t continue to receive financial help but we do help with their coaching and transitioning out programs, as well as information about what would make their applications stand out.”

Pendleton was pleased with the response from the reception.

“I’ve already heard from several of the students who attended the reception about how important it was from them,” she said. “These students are the first in their families to go to college so they’re the first in their families to go to law school. Any assistance helps.”

Michelle Adorno, assistant dean of admissions at UF Law, knows that the Florida Opportunity Scholars Program equips students with all the qualities a law school could look for, academically and financially.

“Our law students who came to UF through the FOS program come to us with many academic achievements and extensive leadership experience,” she said. “In addition, they have a strong sense of giving back to the community. This commitment to scholarship and to giving back to the community is fostered throughout their undergraduate years and continues throughout their law school experience.”

Florida Opportunity Scholars often bring to law school experiences unique to their own background and upbringing that allow them to serve as beacons of wisdom for other law students.

“The College of Law is very familiar with the extensive reach of the Florida Opportunity Scholars program in the past seven years and recognizes the great potential for success of these students,” Adorno said. “Reaching out to FOS students makes perfect sense given the college’s commitment to broad diversity and to enrolling students who will excel academically, attain the highest standards of professional excellence and integrity and bring vision, creativity and commitment to the legal profession.”

Financial need continues to exist for many Machen FOS Program graduates who pursue graduate or professional degrees. In 2009, the UF Foundation began to receive gifts to fund scholarships for FOS graduates and to create FOS endowments in individual colleges, which created additional scholarship opportunities for FOS graduates admitted to graduate and professional programs.

The first FOS-law scholarship was funded by the Shook, Hardy & Bacon Foundation in that year. Since that time three FOS-Law endowments have been created (the Jim and Sharon Theriac Florida Opportunity Scholarship in Law; the Downey Florida Opportunity Scholarship in Law; the Warren M. Cason Florida Opportunity Scholarship in Law), and a fourth is in the process of being created (the Professor Michael Jonathan Moorhead Florida Opportunity Scholars in Law). In addition, a non-endowed FOS-law fund was created (the Judge Stephan P. and Evelyn M. Mickle Florida Opportunity Scholarship in Law), and several other donors have made gifts that are close to endowing a general FOS-Law fund. As a result of these funds and other financial aid programs at the college, each FOS graduate who has enrolled at UF Law has had a financial aid award for a significant portion of the cost of his or her law school education.

Jim Theriac (JD 74) started making annual fund gifts to the college in 2006 when his son began studying at UF Law, and in 2008 Jim and his wife, Sharon, created the first FOS-law endowment.

“I began to notice some of the financial problems these students were facing and that’s why my interest was piqued,” he said. “The students now are remarkable. They’re so much more talented and driven than we were.”

Theriac came from a long line of construction workers. It was not until someone gave him the financial opportunity of attending law school that he was able to reach his dream of becoming a lawyer.

“We’ve got to encourage the young, bright minds and give them the opportunity to grow. Otherwise, our society dies,” he said. “Had people not lifted us up, I’d still be out working construction like my father did and his father did. Getting a law education was really important to us and hopefully it will be for other people too.”

Other law alumni and the college are striving to fund 10 FOS-law scholarships. If you’d like to contribute or would like more information, contact Lauren Wilcox at wilcox@law.ufl.edu or 352-273-0643.