A Quest to Open Doors for Young Learners

Angel Martinez-Martinez student awardee

By Blair Kinsey

The Phi Beta Kappa Alumni Association of Greater Austin has been fostering life-long learning for more than two decades. Not only have they done so by creating a robust, engaging community for our members in the Greater Austin Area, but also by awarding scholarships to current and prospective college students, opening the doors of opportunity for unique, passionate life-long learners.

The Greater Austin association’s current president, Courtney Smith (ΦBK, Baylor University), thinks one of ΦBK’s most important missions is “encouraging this very well rounded and very diversified experience” because, as she explained it, “true innovation and true discovery comes when we combine and intersect fields that maybe haven’t been before, or we do so in a new way.”

To this point, through her engagement with the association, Smith said that she enjoys “seeing people come from so many different walks of life and from so many different paths . . . constantly finding new things to be involved in and finding new ways to be able to learn or finding new methods to connect with each other.”

As president, Smith’s goal is to “bring all sorts of voices to our tables so that our membership is reflective of where we are and who we are,” she said. Bringing all these varied and passionate voices together creates a community of collaboration, innovation, and inspiration, explains Smith.

“What I get to see play out in our members is so much that very motto: Love of Learning is the Guide of Life,” said Smith. “I love to see and be part of the conversations where people genuinely are excited about getting to learn new things, no matter their age and no matter their stage in life.”

To create similar opportunities for connection, growth, and learning for future generations, the Greater Austin association has been awarding various scholarships for advancing and enhancing education since 1999. Their scholarship programs are fully funded by member donations and make a majority of the organization’s yearly budget.

Through a partnership with Breakthrough Central Texas, a nonprofit working to expand access to college education, the association awards scholarships to high school seniors who will be the first in their family to attend college.

“These are students who are fighting through a lot of challenges to be able to pursue that love of learning,” explained Smith. To alleviate some of these challenges, their tuition is partially covered by the Greater Austin association’s High School Scholarship.

To apply for the scholarship, students must write a personal essay. “It’s been really eye opening and humbling to read their stories and what they share with us,” said Lisa Gaw, the association’s scholarship committee chair.

Lisa Gaw (ΦBK, Berkley University) originally grew up in Houston and was the recipient of a similar scholarship from the Houston ΦBK Alumni Association. Thankful for that support, Gaw became involved with the Greater Austin association more than a decade ago, and has been giving back on its scholarship committee since.

The Greater Austin association supports older students as well, awarding the Adult Baccalaureate Scholarship to current college students in the Austin area above the age of 25. This scholarship is “for the older adults who didn’t go straight from high school to college and for whatever reason,” explained Gaw. “It’s different stories that we see from those applicants . . . they’re all unique in their own ways.”

Gaw loves that, “when they started the scholarship program, they thought about the non-traditional student as well,” she said, upholding and supporting ΦBK’s mission to let learning guide the lives of varied and passionate people.

“For all of us at Phi Beta Kappa, we’ve had the privilege of being able to go through a collegiate education and . . . to get to see the doors that opened before us and getting to imagine and dream in new ways,” said Smith. “We have this opportunity—I would argue even an obligation—as we continue to walk forward, to open those doors to others as well.”

Phi Beta Kappa Alumni Association of Greater Austin is thoroughly committed to this cause, investing time and resources into current and future life-long learners who have the odds stacked against them. “That’s a great thing,” said Smith, “just giving them the opportunity, and then letting it soar. Because it goes to places we can’t even imagine with these students.”

Blair Kinsey is a senior at Rhodes College pursing a major in mathematics and a minor in English. She was inducted into the Society by the Gamma of Tennessee chapter there in May of 2023.

Photo at top: Student Angel Martinez-Martinez receives a scholarship from the Phi Beta Kappa Alumni Association of Greater Austin.