Former student gives back with endowment to benefit first-generation students

Jim Wilkes

Jim and Becky Wilkes are pictured above. 

Going to college is often a difficult transition. For first-generation students who don’t have family members to show them the way, it can be tougher.

That’s why Texas A&M University former student Jim Wilkes has decided to lend a hand. The president, director and co-owner of Texland Petroleum LP in Fort Worth, Texas, has provided a $500,000 endowment to support Regents’ Scholars participating in the Engineering Success Program at Texas A&M.

The program provides additional resources to Regents’ Scholars — students who were selected to receive a university scholarship based on certain eligibility requirements including family income, good academic standing and being a first generation student. 

Paying it forward

Wilkes was once a first generation student at Texas A&M himself.  He and his wife, Becky, worked hard to pay their way through college and succeed. Through scholarships and paid internships, they were able to walk across the stage in 1978 with engineering degrees and little debt.

But times have changed, and tuition has risen. Since Regents’ scholars have already received scholarships that help with tuition, Wilkes said he and Becky wanted to provide a different kind of support — the kind of academic and personal support that retains engineering students.

“I think for me, doing this kind of thing is just giving back for what somebody did for me,” Wilkes said. 

Engineering Success Program

Access and Inclusion is a program in the Dwight Look College of Engineering that focuses on recruiting and retaining quality students from underrepresented groups. The Engineering Success Program is under Access and Inclusion, and Dr. Sonia Garcia, senior director, is grateful for the support Wilkes has provided. 

“The Engineering Success Program provides students with engaging workshops that we hope will help them with the transition into college and academic life,” Garcia said. “This incredible and generous financial support will enable us to develop further programming and opportunities for the students.”

The funding will provide additional company visits, workshops, peer mentors and peer tutors who can work specifically with students in the program. It will also help provide funding for students who wish to participate in the Engineering Learning Community Introduction to Research (ELCIR) program. The one-credit research course led by an engineering faculty member includes a 10-day study abroad research experience to Merida, Yucatan in Mexico, where students take intense research classes, visit various research sites and tour culturally rich areas in the region.

Garcia hopes to also host etiquette dinners where students learn the basics of table manners, how to network and how to do an effective elevator pitch. 

“It’s about retention, but it’s also about preparing them for the workforce,” Garcia said. “Many of these students come underprepared. They cannot fathom the radical changes of being in college.”

Why the Engineering Success Program? 

Before the Wilkes family made the decision to donate to the Engineering Success Program, they wanted to meet with some students from their area who had gone through the program. 

Garcia helped connect them with Luis Ramirez and Julio Resendez, both sophomore engineering students who now serve as peer mentors in the Engineering Success Program. Resendez said the Engineering Success Program benefited him in many ways.

“It provided me with a peer mentor who gave me great wisdom and advice throughout my first year at Texas A&M,” he said.

Resendez’s parents did not attend high school or college, so getting help from another student who has gone through the transition into college was helpful.

Ramirez said he and Resendez were able to share their personal success stories about the program with the Wilkes’.

“We also discussed the ELCIR program Julio and I were involved in in the summer and talked about our current research in energy harvesting and how we came about the collaboration with on-campus professors after our study abroad trip in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.” Ramirez said. “During our trip we learned about the research processes and networked with research professionals in the STEM fields. All of these experiences have really enhanced our college experience and have provided us with greater motivation to continue to pursue an engineering degree here at Texas A&M.”

Retaining students like Resendez and Ramirez is the reason the Wilkes’ donated money. Success, Wilkes said, can change the course of a family’s history. 

“They can break the cycle of poverty, and that’s not an easy thing to do,” Wilkes said. “The retention of these first generation students is something that we feel real strongly about — getting them to succeed so they can break that cycle. Our donation is purely motivated by that.”

To find out more about the Engineering Success Program, email accessengineering@tamu.edu.