Spirit Archives

Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

View the full magazine archive

Feature Stories

Student Impact

Brownsville Benefactor

By Chelsea O'Neal '17

Contributor

Nestled on the southernmost tip of Texas along the northern bank of the Rio Grande River sits Brownsville, a city whose location warrants its motto, “On the Border, By the Sea.” Its streets remind visitors and locals alike of its rich and enduring Mexican culture.

Residents are hardworking, genuine, family-oriented and passionate. But they face a serious challenge: Their poverty rate is among the highest in the nation.

This statistic alarmed Mike Hernandez III ’83, a former Brownsville resident, and his wife Kelly. The couple wanted to find a way to alter the fate of Mike’s hometown by investing in the lives of its younger generation.

In 2016, the Hernandezes established a scholarship and academic enrichment program to help low-income students from Brownsville achieve their goals of a higher education at Texas A&M University. Through a cash gift of just over $1 million, the couple will support 10 new students annually for four years, from the time they enter Texas A&M until they all graduate in 2023.

“My family’s roots in Brownsville date back more than 200 years,” said Mike. “Having grown up there, I know the struggles these kids face and how hard it can be to break the cycle of poverty. All anyone needs is someone to believe in them.” 

In its inaugural year, the Brownsville Scholars Program benefits 10 students who are the first in their families to attend college.

A Medical Mission

Every student’s story is special, but for Brownsville Scholar Ramlah Khan ’20, whose goal is to become a pediatrician, it begins with medicine. Growing up in the valley, Khan witnessed firsthand unreliable and expensive medical care.

“I know many people, including my own family members, who go to Mexico to receive medical treatment because they can’t afford services in the United States,” she said. “I chose to study biomedical science because I hope to provide reliable, reasonably priced medical care to residents in South Texas.”

Brownsville Scholars include Ramlah Khan '20 (left), biomedical science; Diego Cuevas '20, engineering; Janie Iracheta '20, biology; Aryana Garza '20, biology; and Markus Bernal '20, engineering.
 

 

Khan, who moved to Brownsville at age three from Los Angeles, had her eyes set on Ivy League schools from a young age. After attending summer programs at universities in the Northeast, she applied and was accepted to Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

As the oldest of four children, however, Khan knew that the cost of attending an Ivy League university would put an unnecessary strain on her parents. She researched schools in Texas and applied to Texas A&M, and her resume and drive led to her acceptance and to her selection as a Brownsville Scholar. The support she receives from the scholarship and other supplemental funding covers all of her tuition.

Now in her second semester, Khan participates in the College of Medicine’s Partnership for Primary Care program, which helps students who hope to bring quality health care back to their hometowns gain admission to medical school. “I can focus on my career goals largely because of the financial freedom afforded by my scholarship,” she said.

A Call to Coach

Jerry Barbosa ’20 also has a story rooted in the desire to help others.

Barbosa moved to Brownsville from Indianapolis at age two and developed a love for sports as a child. A sport management major, he hopes to return to Brownsville to grow the community’s local athletic programs—and perhaps even pave the way for the city’s first collegiate football program. “Sports teach community values and bring people together,” he said. “Making a mark on Brownsville through coaching and athletics would be a dream.”

For Barbosa, applying to college meant applying to schools where he could receive a substantial amount of financial aid. Like Khan, he is one of four children and will be the first in his family to graduate from college. Through visits to Texas A&M during his senior year of high school, he discovered that the friendly atmosphere in Aggieland reminded him of home.

“Receiving the Brownsville scholarship motivates me to be my best self,” Barbosa said. “Knowing that people like the Hernandezes believe in providing individuals like me the opportunity to make something of ourselves compels me to grow, both academically and professionally.”

A Fair Chance

The idea of creating a fair chance for students like Khan and Barbosa prompted the Hernandezes to establish the program.

Mike lived in Brownsville until age 15, when his family moved to Arlington, Texas. After graduating from Texas A&M, he worked in industrial distribution in Houston before moving to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1983 to work for D&M Auto Leasing. Today, he serves as chief executive officer.

He met Kelly, who is originally from Maryland, while working at the company. The two were married in 1992 and have four children. Kelly, who received a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, taught high school English in Grand Prairie for many years and understands the importance of a strong education in students’ lives. “Our intent is that this gift helps those who have the potential to attend college, but not the means,” she said.

Brownsville Scholars include Katia Torres Olivas '20, chemistry; Robert Castro '20, telecommunication media studies; Omar Rodriguez, engineering; Alma Sauceda '20, biomedical science; and Jerry Barbosa '20, sport management.

Each scholar receives $4,500 per year to cover tuition costs as well as up to $4,000 during their time at Texas A&M to participate in academic enrichment experiences such as workshops and conferences, mission work or study abroad programs. For example, the first cohort of scholars has already completed an etiquette training program, participated in a student leadership conference in Arizona and spoken to high schoolers in Brownsville about the importance of a college education.

Scholarships also cover recipients’ Fish Camp fees and fund mentorship and leadership development activities. Finally, each scholar receives an additional stipend should they complete an internship in Brownsville during their time at Texas A&M.

“The financial burden keeping these kids from attending Texas A&M isn't tuition and fees, but books and other living expenses,” Mike said. “These scholarships help cover those gaps, and program aspects ensure scholars have an enriching college experience. Ultimately, we want to make higher education, and specifically a degree from Texas A&M, more attainable and affordable for this important and often underrepresented sector of the state.”

To qualify for the scholarship, students must demonstrate financial need, exhibit leadership in high school and be recipients of a Texas A&M Regents’ Scholarship, which is also designed to assist first-generation college students from low-income families.
 

The Hernandezes funded the program through a non-endowed, cash gift that will pay out over a four-year period. “Our hope is that recipients buy into the Texas A&M value system, develop the work ethic instilled in every Aggie and return to Brownsville to become successful business leaders,” Mike said. “This is an investment.”

After their gift pays out, the Hernandezes hope that others are inspired to continue the tradition of giving back to Brownsville students by endowing a scholarship or program funds to support academic enrichment and internship opportunities. The program also seeks the support of companies in Cameron County that are willing to host internships for Brownsville Scholars.

“While our commitment is long-term, it is essential that we seek and identify partners willing to continue the cause so that we can provide more opportunities for future students,” Mike said. “Texas A&M has a proud alumni base in the region who share my admiration for the quality of education this institution offers and who I hope will be compelled to share that experience with future generations.”

$25,000

Creates an internship or a Fish Camp sponsorship for scholars in the program.

$100,000

Establishes an academic enrichment fund to support scholars’ involvement in workshops, conferences or study abroad programs.

$125,000

Endows a scholarship to support an individual Brownsville Scholar for four years.

$500,000

Endows a Living Learning Community for the Brownsville Scholars program.

Contact:

Andrew Robison '04

Director of Development of College of Medicine
Health Science Center