Texas A&M University chemistry major Oscar Gonzalez ’18 has always held high expectations for himself, especially when it comes to academics. For someone who grew up idolizing iconic scientists like Richard Feynman and Sir Isaac Newton, college seemed like a no-brainer.
As a member of his high school’s National Honor Society, Gonzalez compiled enough dual-enrollment credits by the time he graduated last May to begin college as a junior. The San Juan, Texas, native was more than prepared. But beyond the fact that neither of his parents had attended college—although they fully supported their son’s dream to do so—there was the looming question of how much it would cost.
In Gonzalez’s case, it was a fine line between no-brainer and no guarantee.
“My parents encouraged me to chase whatever dreams I had,” he said. “The only problem was that if I needed financial help, there was not much they could do.”
Fate intervened in the form of the Science Leadership Scholars (SLS) program, a newly established scholarship initiative in the Texas A&M College of Science that provides financial and academic support to high-performing science majors who share common at-risk factors, including being first-generation students from low-income families. After some persuading from a supportive high school teacher and with his sights set on a chemistry degree, Gonzalez applied to Texas A&M and was admitted in fall 2016 as one of 23 students recruited for the inaugural SLS cohort.
“The thing that really scared me was the cost of attendance in addition to books, dorm fees and other expenses,” said Gonzalez, who is also a Regents’ Scholar and Century Scholar at Texas A&M. “I was lucky to receive significant help from Texas A&M, especially with SLS. It’s benefitted me financially, for sure.”
Encouraging Students in the Sciences
The SLS program’s objective to recruit and retain students regardless of personal circumstances gained early support from Barbara ’82 and John Calhoun ’79, who made the program's lead gift through the Texas A&M Foundation. Other funds were contributed by former students and faculty, along with a $10,000 gift this spring from BP America Inc. Each gift is counted toward the university's Lead by Example campaign, a comprehensive effort to raise $4 billion by 2020 to enhance Texas A&M’s capability to address major societal challenges facing the state, nation and world.
Gonzalez’s first semester at Texas A&M wasn’t without some initial growing pains. He was nearly seven hours away from home in an entirely new and Aggie-proud culture. He also had to adjust to sharing a dorm with a roommate he’d never met. And while Gonzalez expected college to be challenging, the coursework was more rigorous than expected.
But after meeting his SLS peers, each facing circumstances like his, Gonzalez said the transition to college became less jarring. The program’s useful resources and hands-on supplementation beyond the traditional classroom setting provided relief. Scholars participate in informative workshops that teach time-management and study skills, group discussions, and frequent one-on-one meetings with the program’s adviser to ensure academic success.
Before long, Gonzalez gained enough collegiate confidence to begin exploring on-campus clubs and organizations, making friends in class and greeting random people with a “Howdy.”
“The support system has been really helpful,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone interacts with each other, and it makes you realize that we’re all just trying to find our way. Just having someone there, knowing that they have your back, feels nice.”
If early results are any indication, Gonzalez already has college down to a science. In his first semester, he earned a place on the college's coveted Dean’s List, with grades above a 3.75 in 16 hours of coursework. At midterm this spring, Gonzalez was earning all As across his 15 hours.
Learning in the lab
He’s even accomplished another longtime goal: research. Since January, Gonzalez has assisted in creating compound samples to be tested for their magnetic properties at low temperatures in the laboratory of Meigan Aronson, professor of physics, dean of the College of Science and architect of the SLS program. This fall, Gonzalez will join the research group of noted nanomaterials expert and chemistry professor Sarbajit Banerjee.
“What sold me on Texas A&M was the research,” he said. “Since I was a freshman in high school, I’ve known that I wanted to contribute somehow to the scientific community. The best path is through research. My expectations have been far surpassed.”
Gonzalez is most looking forward to paying it forward. One of his responsibilities as a Science Leadership Scholar will be to serve as a peer adviser for future cohorts, effectively laying the groundwork for an eventual college-wide student support system.
“I can say that this is my home now,” Gonzalez said, “and I would love to share my story with incoming freshmen. If they ever need help, I’m more than glad to help a fellow Aggie.”
Having successfully completed his first year at Texas A&M, Gonzalez wants to relish more of Aggieland during his next. He plans to take in Aggie football this fall and continue exploring different clubs. Academics, he said, will remain his top priority.
Gonzalez hopes to use his chemistry degree to one day be a chemical analyst for NASA. And with heroes like Newton and Feynman, Gonzalez knows he has big shoes to fill.
“Science makes the world seem simpler to me,” Gonzalez said. “It gives me a better understanding of what I am and what everything else is. I guess what I’m trying to do is meet our predecessors’ standards.”
One of Newton’s standards beyond discovering gravity is his quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”—be they scientific idols or donors who help turn dreams into reality.