Dease scholars pose in front of the Arches.
(l-r): Dease Scholars Carolina Delgado Sonora, Hser Htoo and Elizabeth Albarca Hernandez. (Brandon Woller '17/University of St. Thomas)

Dease Scholarship Program Creates Changemakers

In high school, Hser Htoo planned on becoming a firefighter and hadn’t wanted to go to college. But through a college readiness program, he was advised to apply to schools and scholarships. After hearing about the Dease Scholarship, he decided to apply to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Now a sophomore at St. Thomas, Htoo described the Dease Scholarship as “life-changing.”

Since its founding in 2004, the Dease Scholarship Program has sought to bring more diversity and inclusion to the University of St. Thomas. Father Dennis Dease, St. Thomas’ 14th president, initiated the program to increase accessibility to higher education at the university for underrepresented students, primarily students of color, first-generation students, and students demonstrating significant financial need.

“We look for scholars who demonstrate a commitment to social justice and who are future changemakers who want to make a change in their communities, both at St. Thomas and after graduating,” Assistant Director of Retention and Student Success Nayely Becerra Castillo, overseer of the Dease Scholarship Program, explained. “We are looking for students who are involved in their school or their community, who are models of inclusive leadership, and are aware that they serve as leaders.”

Each year, approximately 13 first-year students receive the four-year full-tuition scholarships.

Beyond the financial support, the program helps students realize their fullest potential as they dedicate their time to civic engagement and learning how to effect meaningful change. Scholars are encouraged and empowered to become effective changemakers, not just at St. Thomas, but within their communities and beyond.

Living with the other first-year Dease students in the Emerging Scholars for Justice Living Learning Community pushed Htoo out of his comfort zone as he made connections. Through the Linkages Mentor Program, a peer mentoring initiative designed to support the retention of underrepresented students at St. Thomas, Htoo connected with his mentor and got advice and questions answered. By being a Dease scholar, Htoo got involved in the broader community outside of St. Thomas through his volunteering at Asian Youth Outreach, where he mentored minority middle and high school students. Because of his positive experience as a mentee and a mentor, Htoo now serves as a Linkages mentor to first-year Dease students, advocating for them.

Dease Scholar Hser Htoo ’26 on the program's impact

The Emerging Scholars for Justice Living Learning Community focuses on helping students to become engaged leaders in social justice. Students meet once a month as a cohort to discuss topics such as social issues important to them. First-year students also participate as mentees in the Linkages Mentor Program. During their sophomore year, Dease scholars get involved in civic and community engagement. In the past, students have spent a day at the Minnesota Capitol and volunteered to help students at local schools. In their junior and senior years, Dease scholars become mentors in the Linkages Mentor Program to first-year Dease students.

“It was really helpful to be part of the community at St. Thomas,” Elizabeth Arbaca Hernandez ’26 reflected on her experience in the Linkages Mentor Program. “I'm more of a person who likes to like to stay in my bubble. So, I think that it really pushed me to put myself out there, find people of different majors, different backgrounds, and just to expand my group of people. A lot of the people were my mentors. They were really nice, and I got to meet their friends, who are also mentors. Now, I'm mentoring first-year students.”

Dease Scholar Elizabeth Abarca Hernandez ’26 on the program's impact

Throughout their four years, the Dease Scholarship instills the values of service and leadership, which empowers its scholars to make an impact on others and themselves.

“I always look at it as a gift to the university that the students have chosen to come to St. Thomas, and that they have chosen to share with us who they are as scholars and share with us themselves and their communities,” Executive Director of Student Engagement and Inclusion Dr. Patricia Conde-Brooks said. “I have had the opportunity to see some amazing leaders who come from very diverse backgrounds and have given much back to St. Thomas. I’m very grateful for them, because I think that what they have given to St. Thomas cannot be measured.”

Carolina Delgado Sonora ’24 was inspired to put together an event to bring more awareness to the community of people of color and education because of the community engagement project she completed as a Dease Scholar at a local school where she helped students from first grade to sixth grade navigate education during the pandemic. Because of the support she received from mentors and the scholarship, Delgado Sonora wants to give back and help others feel supported, too.

Dease Scholar Carolina Delgado ’24 on the program's impact

“This scholarship really embraced me and made me feel at home. I want to create an environment just like that for everyone,” Delgado Sonora reflected. As president of HOLA (Hispanic Organization for Leadership and Achievement) club, she continues to use values of leadership, service, and changemaking as she creates an environment that is welcoming for all students and celebrates diversity and inclusion.

Htoo is grateful for the scholarship because of the variety of resources it has provided him.

Regarding the impact of the Dease Scholarship, Htoo said, “It’s life-changing, because I didn't want to come to college. It has brought me new opportunities, and I get to see my potential.”

He’s currently studying electrical engineering with a minor in physics and theology and the common good.

Linkages mentor Lucy Lezama Espinoza ’24 expressed her gratitude for the Dease Scholarship Program.

“Attending the University of St. Thomas was always my dream, and the Dease Scholarship Program gave me not only the financial aid to achieve this dream but also set me up to be successful during my undergraduate journey,” she said. “From connecting me to amazing faculty and students, Dease made me aware of the support system that I had as I navigated St. Thomas as a first-generation college student. I have met and experienced so many amazing opportunities thanks to the Dease Scholarship and their faith in me to be a changemaker. As I am nearing the end of my undergraduate journey, I am incredibly thankful for the doors that have opened before and after my graduation. Dease was an important factor in my success at St. Thomas and I hope that they continue to help other students like me succeed.”

Dease Scholars (left to right) Carolina Delgado Senora ’24, Hser Htoo ’26 and Elizabeth Albarca Hernandez ’26 (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)