Georgia State University Honors College Dean Larry Berman waves a book in the air. “One of my bibles that I use—and as a new college we’re not in it—features the top 50 public university honors colleges. Go through it, and you can see what needs to be done,” he says. The universities in the book all offer their brightest students access to undergraduate and post-graduate scholarships, study abroad programs, honors housing, innovative and interdisciplinary curricula,  priority registration and financial aid.
Dean Larry Berman

Dean Larry Berman

“These are my aspirational institutions . . . they don’t have better students than us, but they do have staff dedicated to focusing on these objectives,” Berman (left) continues. The metrics used to determine the best schools include those factors, in addition to prestigious scholarships, high graduation rates, high SAT and GPA scores. They also have large databases of private donors who sponsor the activities the students need to become tomorrow’s leaders.

“It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out what it needs to succeed. Here at Georgia State, we are starting later than some schools, but we have the students,” he adds. “It’s not enough to tell them that they can apply for these scholarships and awards. They need to be counseled and nurtured.” As many Georgia State students are on financial aid, and 40 percent are first generation students, they are often unaware of what they must do to put their dreams into motion. And many don’t have access to the funding that is needed to take these steps.

Jennifer Gerz-Escandon

Jennifer Gerz-Escandon

The college has taken one large step toward making the mark. Jennifer Gerz-Escandon (right) joined the university in November 2012. Her responsibility is to identify, nurture and create a culture where students realize there are no limits to their abilities.

“Our vision is to become a model for student achievement,” says Gerz-Escandon. “This brand new office helps to identify high-ability students and track them for major national scholarships.” To get there, Gerz-Escandon helps them plan their entire student career. This includes preparing them for internships, expanding their communications skills and planning service activities so they will be accomplished candidates.

The most prestigious national awards—the Rhodes, Goldwater, Truman and Marshall scholarships—spotlight outstanding students, as well as the colleges and universities they attend. They are highly competitive—in most cases, scholars must have a GPA of at least 3.75, along with a well-rounded resume. If their application is chosen for further consideration, candidates must be thoroughly prepared for the evaluation experience, skilled in presentation, interviewing and thinking on their feet.

Gerz-Escandon, a former Fulbright Scholar, has evaluated some of the brightest students from across the globe. During her years on the political science faculties of Lynn University in Florida and the University of Evansville in Indiana, she served on the selection committee for the Rhodes Scholarship and the Fulbright and Truman scholarships. She earned her Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Miami.

Berman has taken other significant steps to make Honors College students at Georgia State competitive. He has developed and created the college’s study abroad and internship programs, including opportunities in Washington, D.C., and London. The first applications for these programs will be taken this spring. “I can’t tell you how many students have come into my office and said they would like to have these experiences, but they don’t have the resources to do that.”

The solution is simple, if not easy to accomplish. “To me, philanthropy and private giving provide these students the tools for lifetime achievement. When you take talented students and give them the chance and opportunity that they might not otherwise have, they will be appreciative of that, they will return appreciative of it, they will help recruit other students into it, and it will become the best model for the great things philanthropy can do to change students’ lives,” he says.

“I tell people, if you can create the opportunity for these students for a lifetime of achievement, they in turn will make lifetime contributions to society and forever be appreciative of the role philanthropy played in their educational opportunities.”

—By Sarah Banick