Pair lifts first-generation students

New UC scholarship provides students mentoring, networking

Recognizing a need for first-generation college students in the Greater Cincinnati region, brothers Mike and Jim Rodarte were inspired to act.

They co-founded Level Up Cincinnati, a nonprofit that bridges the gaps between high school, college and career with mentorship and coaching for marginalized students. The brothers also created a $160,000 scholarship fund at the University of Cincinnati designed to help these students.

Mike Rodarte, JeRod Lindsey and Jim Rodarte

“The number of low-income, first-generation students leaving college without a degree is high,” said Mike Rodarte. “These future leaders deserve equitable access to opportunities. The reality is that navigating the transition to college and then to professional life comes with hurdles.”

“The ultimate goal is to increase diverse leadership in Cincinnati and keep talent local,” said Jim Rodarte, who is Level Up Cincinnati’s executive director. “The best way to do this is to support those who need it most.”

“When we were thinking of local partners, the first name we thought of was UC,” Jim Rodarte added. “We felt like we could layer on all of the wonderful work UC is already doing.”

Not only were the brothers impressed with the university, particularly its Gen-1 program, but the inspiration for Level Up Cincinnati is UC alumnus JeRod Lindsey, A&S ‘14.

Lindsey had struggled at UC as a first-generation college student.

“I felt like a lone fish,” he remembers. “I didn’t know anyone at UC. I didn’t know how to get involved with organizations or how to study. I remember walking out of a math class because the work was overwhelming.”

After leaving UC, a job readiness program brought Lindsey and Mike Rodarte together.

Lindsey was reluctant to form a relationship with Mike Rodarte, saying he didn’t understand mentorship and found it intrusive. “This didn’t deter Mike,” Lindsey said. “And my relationship with him has been influential to my growth and ongoing success.”

He re-enrolled at UC, graduated and is now a senior analyst at Citi.

Now, the Rodarte brothers and Lindsey have known each other for 12 years and consider one another family. When Mike expressed to Lindsey that he wanted to give back in a more significant way, they decided to use their own relationship as a template. Mentorship and networking would play a big role in how they could help local students.

“One of the keys to success is access,” said Lindsey. “You can be brilliant, but if you don’t know the right people, you’re stuck. We aim to give rising leaders the same kind of access that Mike gave to me — not just to resources, but to people and networks as well.”

The Level Up Scholarship Fund will support students in public school districts across the region. Renewable for eight semesters, the first recipients, five first-year students and five third-year students, will begin in fall 2023.

“It’s important to support these students financially and take some of the burden off them,” said Jim Rodarte. “But we also recognize that sometimes that is not enough.”

A unique part of this scholarship is the additional support students will receive from Level Up. This includes personal and professional development, one-on-one coaching and access to a professional launch network.

First-year students will be paired with a transition coach, who will help them bridge from high school to college. Third-year students will partner with a career coach in their field of study, smoothing the shift to the professional world.

Students will connect with the Level Up Professional Launch Network, a group of individuals committed to their success. They will also be supported by local corporate partners that include Sycamore Capital, AMEND Consulting, Frost Brown Todd and Citi.

“The gift from the Rodarte family will be transformational, not only for the students but for the entire university,” says Jack Miner, UC vice provost for enrollment management. “The gift is one more opportunity to lift up students from this community and recognize the importance of college for
first-generation students.”

“The scholarship really builds on the experience of the Rodarte family,” Miner said. “It is incredible that they are making a commitment to enable more students to have that UC experience.”

Level Up Cincinnati is seeking coach volunteers, business leaders, first-generation college graduates and corporate business partners. To learn more or become a part of the program, visit levelupcincinnati.org.


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