Young Owls flock to campus this summer

Rice University’s new owlets aren’t the only young owls spending time on campus this summer. Thanks to the hard work of two 2013 Rice graduates, 72 high school students from the Houston Independent School District spent some time inside the hedges June 8-15 as part of the Young Owls Leadership Program (YOLP).

Recent graduates Norma Torres and Zack Marx-Kuo are the co-founders of YOLP, which focuses on college preparation for students from underserved communities in the Houston area, especially those who will be the first in their families to go to college.

School administrators and counselors select students for the program, which was founded in 2012 with a $48,541 grant from HISD EMERGE. EMERGE was started in 2010 by a group of HISD educators and community leaders who shared a vision of sending many more bright and driven low-income students from the Houston community to the nation’s top colleges.

“We designed our curriculum and programs around the college application process, college life and leadership and personal development,” Torres said. “Specifically, this year’s program included workshops on financial aid, the college admission essay, admission into highly selective universities, public speaking, etiquette, team-building exercises, science, technology, engineering and math fields, academic opportunities in college, career paths and more.”

YOLP students even got to experience Rice’s residential college system; they stayed overnight in Baker College and ate in the Hanszen College servery all week. Students also sat in on lectures by Rice faculty members, including Richard Tapia, University Professor and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering, and Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology and co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“It’s our mission to build confidence in students and help them picture themselves at a place like Rice,” Marx-Kuo said. “There are so many highly motivated students that simply lack resources. We want them to know that college is possible.”

Yesenia Santos, one of the students participating in YOLP, said she really enjoyed the experience.

“Coming to a place like Rice is an awesome experience,” Santos said. “We have dreams, we have ambitions, and I believe this program helps you get the education you need to have to reach your goals.

A first-generation college student, Santos said it is a very good program for youth, especially minorities.

“It lets us know that people are believing in us,” she said.

Daniel Riojas, another participant, said Rice is his “dream school.”

“I wanted to see more of campus,” he said. “It’s amazing to be here.”

Also a first-generation college student, Riojas is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the program and have opportunities his parents did not.

“I really want to make my parents proud,” he said. “I’ve visited several other universities, but Rice really seems like the right fit for me. I feel right at home.”

Torres notes that YOLP is also a great leadership exercise for the 30 Rice student volunteers.

Rice sophomore Nehemiah Ankoor, the YOLP program adviser, said he greatly benefited from mentorship before coming to Rice and is happy to pay it forward to a new group of students.

“There were some very critical junctures in my education where if I didn’t have mentors there guiding me along the way, there would have been no way that I could have come to Rice,” he said.

For more information on YOLP, visit


About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.