By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
University officials recently announced new incentives to attract students to the residential college campus in Surprise.
Melanie Nemerguth, an Arizona Cardinals cheerleader, has been working over the past two years to build Ottawa’s cheer and dance programs in Surprise and said she believes the scholarships are a helpful recruiting tool.
“Once I started there, it was a new experience for me. So, I used my contacts and got going right away because I had to get a team together by August,” Ms. Nemerguth said. “The last two weeks before school started, we were still looking for kids.”
But since 2018, interest in the program has increased and the students now perform regularly at campus events, she said.
“We have grown so much, starting from nothing to us cheering on all four teams at Ottawa,” Ms. Nemerguth said, referring to the four sports her programs support, which include the football and soccer teams, as well as men’s and women’s volleyball and basketball teams.
“We’re growing at a really good pace and improving, too,” she added.
After starting with only six students, things have held steady with eight now participating in dance and 13 in cheer, Ms. Nemerguth said.
All 21 of those students are receiving scholarships worth $10,000 or more, according to a university press release.
The scholarships have helped her attract and retain talented, hard-working performers and the teams will compete again this year when they go to USA Spirit Nationals in Anaheim, California later this month, Ms. Nemerguth explained.
“All the athletes get scholarships. I think this is definitely a draw to the school and there are very few schools that offer a scholarship for cheer,” Ms. Nemerguth said. “I’m super excited we took our dance team last year and we have a lot of talented girls who really want it. They’re really hungry and ready to put everything they’ve got on the floor this year.”
Thomas Bookhout leads the campus’s nascent music programs, which he commenced recruiting efforts for in September of last year.
He said the activities scholarships will help attract more students to the choral and instrumental groups he is building in Surprise.
“When I was brought in during the summer last year, we went ahead and started recruiting and at that time just about every student on campus was an athlete,” said Mr. Bookhout, who also serves as chorus master at the Phoenix Symphony.
The choral program is growing steadily with a core group of 10 students participating and Mr. Bookhout met with another group of students just last week, who will comprise the inaugural troupe in the campus’s emerging theater program.
“I am also talking to kids about theater and seeing what we could start doing this semester and what kind of show we can get going,” Mr. Bookhout said. “During signups at the start of the school year, about 25 kids expressed an interest in theater.”
He said instrumental programs can be more challenging to establish, since such ensembles require enough participants to cover the various parts – including woodwind, brass and percussion players – to be able to rehearse effectively and perform.
The activities scholarships may help attract enough musicians to launch a band program this fall, he hopes.
“Every year we’re seeing an increasing number of students interested in more than athletics,” Mr. Bookhout said. “What I’d really like is to have scholarships for instrumental players to play in a pep band at games. If we could grow that from year-to-year, then we could have the core for an instrumental program.”
He suggested building his programs and others beyond the sports teams, which will be an important part of the young campus’s evolution over the next few years.
“It’s on everyone’s mind that as we’re growing as a school, we will be bringing in many more non-athletes,” Mr. Bookhout said. “That was great for starting the school, but that isn’t the endgame. The endgame is a full liberal arts school and these activities scholarships are a great demonstration of that commitment.”
According to Amanda Ventura, a public relations consultant with Evolve Public Relations & Marketing, Ottawa’s devotion to diversification and fostering new activities has led to faster-than-expected growth overall.
“The idea is paying off,” Ms. Ventura stated. “Ottawa is seeing one of its largest incoming undergraduate classes for this spring’s semester. This bucks a common trend that university’s see – a dip in enrollment in the spring. Ottawa is seeing a boost.”
Other groups open to students pursuing an activities scholarship include clubs focused on topics like biology, business, education, engineering, psychology, sports medicine, bowling, cycling, lacrosse, Ultimate Frisbee, outdoor adventure, campus ministries and praise and worship.
Ottawa also offers competitive academic scholarships and other traditional incentives, Ms. Ventura stated.