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Bears First Program Gives All Students a Chance to Succeed

The Bears First program is a key resource that allows UNC to support all students by meeting them where they are in their higher education journey.

The University of Northern Colorado (UNC) is committed to supporting all students, including those other institutions may overlook.  

For many students, maintaining a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) in high school is difficult, whether because of losses in their family, attending an under-resourced school or simply losing momentum for a single semester. Academic interruptions may lead to being denied university admission, even for a student with potential and drive. And for those who do enroll, academic challenges may persist leading to an increased risk of dropping out. But UNC’s Bears First program confronts that challenge, giving more students a chance to succeed. 

Bears First is designed for students entering UNC with below a 3.0 GPA. The program helps students establish a strong first and second year of academic success through personalized coaching and advising. Meeting regularly with a coach from UNC’s Soar office, Bears First students develop academic success plans every semester and build a firm foundation for the remainder of their academic journey. The program has proven success, with higher academic achievement and improved student retention, which caught the attention of the UNC Alumni Association Board of Directors and inspired a special scholarship they planned to award. 

An Incentive to Succeed  

“This is the first time I am receiving a scholarship, and I cannot put into words how much it has meant to me ... This scholarship is giving me even more of an opportunity to continue growing my academic career and do what I am most passionate about. I have always wanted to come to college and the finance part of it has always been the hardest, but with this, I feel as if I am able to keep going, and I hope I am lucky enough to keep getting scholarships to make my future at UNC possible,” said Zacura Pedro, a Bears First student. 

When alumna Sharon Gander, ’74, passed away in 2018, she left a portion of her estate to fund a UNC Alumni Association Scholarship. The generous, but general nature of the gift presented a unique challenge for the Alumni Association’s board and scholarship committee – how to prioritize which students would receive the new scholarship.  

The board investigated and discussed several student initiatives and needs, including first-generation status, unpaid internships and supporting students from specific locations. Yet many of these needs were already met by existing scholarships, while other funds were addressing general academic merit or financial need. But one need was clearly not met – scholarships for the type of student served by Bears First. 

I’m proud to be part of a board that is intentionally thinking about all students and not just students that are already excelling. The Alumni Board wants to support all students. The students who may be struggling, which could be for a multitude of reasons, along with the students who are excelling. Life is not always a linear path, and it can have many ups and downs. This scholarship gives grace and space for student’s individual journey and to excel on their own timeline.,” said Q Daugherty, ’87, M.M. ’00, UNC’s Alumni Association Board Chair. 

As Daugherty pointed out, many highly successful people struggled through high school, yet went on to thrive in college and in their careers. In exploring possible scholarship priorities, board members shared candid stories about their academic experiences and grades. One overlooked reality came to light in that conversation: learning looks different for everyone, and everyone deserves support. 

“I was like a 2.3 to 2.4 [GPA] up in the air in the high school, but part of that was because high school was not challenging to me, I could do six grade work when I was in the 1st grade. And my educational path was from before they figured out that people have different learning styles,” said Alton Dillard, ’86, a member of the UNC Alumni Association Board. 

Dillard points out the importance of programs like Bears First that amplify conversations about how to best support students who might not have excelled in the past. At a university that graduates so many educators, shedding light on the different ways students learn and the importance of feeling connected can shape the future of the institution. 

“I coach basketball at a school where the kids … [don't] necessarily have 3.4 and 3.6 [GPAs] and things like that, but they are still good students. I also think that it ties back to the type of education UNC provides. One of the things that I always tell my players or to any prospective or future Bears is how you're a name at UNC and not a number,” said Dillard. 

The Bears First program reinforces for its students that they are each an integral part of the UNC community. This Students First approach impressed Daugherty and the board. After learning Bears First resulted in higher retention rates, the board decided to provide the program’s students with a financial incentive to succeed and designated the Gander Scholarship to be awarded to Bears First students.  

“[The program] really looks at the students outside the classroom and they make a point to, whether they would go to a meal with them or have coffee with them, they really make a point to connect with the whole student, not just in the classroom,” said Daugherty. 

At UNC, every student is valued for the person they are. Programs like Bears First, and the Sharon Gander Alumni Scholarship further prove this.  

Efforts to expand support of the scholarship led the alumni board to adopt Bears First as their primary campaign during the annual Bears Give Back day of giving. The board encourages fellow alumni to show their support by making a Bears First donation during the 24-hour day of giving hosted on April 11, 2024.  

To learn more about supporting student success, save the date for Bears Give Back, access new estate planning resources, or visit the UNC Give page. 

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