Established in 2005, the St. David’s Neal Kocurek Scholarship Program was created to support Central Texas students pursuing undergraduate health-related studies in Texas colleges and universities, and graduate or medical school programs nationwide. Named in honor of Dr. W. Neal Kocurek, an inspirational civic and corporate leader, this program represents his passion for the power of education and his desire to bring people together to achieve progress in areas such as health care, public education, social equity, and regional stewardship.
To date, the scholarship program has provided financial support and resources to more than 700 students from Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties pursuing a career in medicine, nursing, physical therapy, biomedical engineering and more.
At the center of the program is the need to foster the next generation of culturally competent healthcare professionals. The mission of St. David’s Foundation is to advance health equity in Central Texas and to address the persistent health disparities across our region. A diverse, culturally competent health care system can build trust, improve health outcomes and work to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities. As our region rapidly grows in size and diversity, centering equity in the scholarship program is vital.
In addition, the team behind the program recognized a need to assess the processes, structures, and benefits associated with the scholarship program and began asking deeper questions to better evolve the program and better support their students.
Questions posed included: How equitable is our application? In light of COVID-19, how can we empower and support the mental health of our scholars? How can we recognize our implicit biases in the application review process? Are there more creative ways we can enable scholarship outreach into our rural communities? It is through the lens of these questions and contemplations that the scholarship program team began to pivot its ways of working and thinking. Below is a snapshot of what they discovered and how the program is evolving.
Evolving the Scholarship Application with an Equity Lens
The scholarship review committee is comprised of 25+ members who represent varied sectors of our community committed to supporting the healthcare workforce of the future. Each year this review committee assesses the scholar applications while taking into account academics, merit and financial need.
In recent years, the program team began to research best practices in application review and scoring and leaned into uncomfortable questions about ways in which implicit bias might be impacting the review process. They further consulted on ways in which the committee could better improve equity throughout the application.
The following steps were taken to improve upon these areas:
- Worked with an implicit bias facilitator in 2020 to train the review committee on the importance of acknowledging their implicit biases in order to review applicants fairly
- Assessed and restructured the scholarship committee members to be more reflective of the scholars we serve (i.e., diverse ethnicities, career backgrounds, and scholarship alumni)
- Collaborated with internal teams to develop info packets that included more contextual statistics to help eliminate bias in reviewing financial need and academic potential
- Updated the scoring rubric to include more weight on students’ resilience and ability to overcome difficult life circumstances
- Invited members of academia to review the scholarship application in 2021 who identified areas of improvement and recommended changes to implement
- Removed standardized test scores from the application, as research shows these specific results are not the best predictors of a student’s ability to succeed in college.
Community Support is Key
Beyond the financial assistance, scholars report that mental health resources and tutoring available through our program have made the biggest difference in helping them succeed. These resources are particularly helpful for those students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Of note, in the 2022 school year, more than half of the entering scholars were the first in their family to attend college, which represents the largest number of first-time college students since the inception of the program.
The COVID-19 pandemic only served to emphasize the need for mental health support and emergency financial assistance at times of greater need.
By joining a true community of peers who are working towards similar goals, students can also lean on each other for connection and camaraderie in difficult moments. What follows is a list of ways the program has lifted up and supported its scholars:
- Provided virtual mindfulness sessions for scholars
- Offered virtual mental health discussion in 2020 with psychologist and SDNK Mentor Dr. Ghadeer Okayli
- Scheduled regular reminders and encouragement to access free mental health resources and health counseling
- Created an emergency fund in 2020 to assist scholars facing additional financial barriers
You Can’t Be It If You Can’t See It
Mentorship is a proven lever for professional success, but few college students have the connections or experience to create these relationships on their own. By pairing each student with a mentor well before graduation, unknown avenues of possibility become real opportunities. As much as possible, the program team seeks to pair scholars with professionals who share similar backgrounds and career focus. Pairing scholars with mentors began in 2009, and since that time, 93% of the scholars have completed their degrees. We credit this retention rate to a variety of factors, but particularly the support and guidance provided by mentorship.
To learn more about the St. David’s Neal Kocurek Scholarship Program please visit: https://scholarships.stdavidsfoundation.org/
To apply for a 2023 St. David’s Neal Kocurek Scholarship, learn more here: https://sdfscholarships.smapply.io/ Deadline to apply is January 6th, 2023.