TheCenter helps UNLV athletes tap their potential

Having once been point guard for the women’s basketball team at Cal Poly Pomona and an assistant coach with the Lady Rebels under Jim Bolla, Musiette McKinney had a hunch TheCenter, UNLV’s educational opportunity center on East Tropicana Avenue, could provide valuable services for a lot of local athletes if they only knew it was there.

TheCenter is short for Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach. The federally funded program provides a plethora of educational services, including academic advising, counseling, tutoring, financial aid and college application, college application assistance and high school equivalency pre-testing.

They’ll also give you encouragement and lots of pats on the back.

TheCenter’s TriO program — so named because it started with three programs at the federal level; now there are eight — and Talent Search program have produced so many success stories that UNLV holds an annual celebration to honor them.

One of those feted this year was Terry Benson, a Rancho High graduate.

That in itself was an upset.

Terry Benson’s grade-point average when he pretty much stumbled into one of McKinney’s seminars as a junior in high school was 1.4. He also was pretty much homeless then. He would stay with friends and relatives, bouncing from house to house, wherever there was an extra blanket.

He would mostly go to school because he could get something to eat in the cafeteria.

The counselors said Terry should stay in school and set goals. The counselors always say that. Every now and again kids such as Terry Benson take it to heart.

By his senior year, Terry had improved his GPA to 3.5.

With a GPA like that, he could go to college. That motivated him. He joined the track team and ran like the wind, and he jumped over those hurdles pretty quickly, too.

He was accepted by Central Arizona, a junior college in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix. He got a part-time job. He continued to run like the wind and jump over the hurdles for the Arizona Central track team; he became its captain. He also made the dean’s list and was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society.

He was graduated from Central Arizona with honors.

The kid who had been homeless and aimless received a scholarship to jump hurdles at Tennessee.

He became the Volunteers’ captain, too, made the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll. He finished fifth among those SEC speed merchants in the 110-meter hurdles at the conference championships.

In May 2013 he received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Tennessee in political science.

He’s home now, working for the Clark County Department of Family Services. He’s also a volunteer fireman.

Terry Benson says he doesn’t know where he’d be without TheCenter, and that encouragement and those pats on the back he received from Musiette McKinney back when it seemed he always was hungry.

“I was living in shelter homes; I had nights where I didn’t even know where I would stay,” he said. “I was walking through campus one day at Rancho High School when Ms. McKinney kind of jumped out at me. She knew I was falling behind. She said, ‘Hi, how you doin’? You look like you want to go to college.’

“Nobody had ever told me that I could qualify. It’s something I never thought was a possibility. She gave me her card, told me to come see her.”

And so one day he did. But only after repeated prodding from Ms. McKinney about staying in school and setting goals.

“It seemed like I would see her everywhere,” Benson said. “She would be at the track, at the lunchroom. She definitely let me know that she was available. By my senior year, I had support from people around me. I was motivated. It was just so wonderful; (my) whole mind frame changed.

“I was in TRiO; I was prom king; I won regionals in track and field; I had joined my student union. I won best smile. It was a big year for me. And I had a part-time job, at KFC.”

He owes much of that — maybe not the part-time gig at KFC — to Ms. Musiette McKinney, assistant director, educational talent search at The Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach.

“All we knew is that we needed to help this young man,” she says.

Not everybody makes it, of course. But some do. More than you might think.

Tyler Gaston, the former UNLV football lineman and another Rancho grad, recently came through the program. He made the dean’s list, too.

“You’ve got to realize their potential,” McKinney says.

“Terry would go ‘I’m not college material.’ And I literally said this: ‘Who told you that?’ I chased that young man, we got him, we motivated him. He went to Central Arizona, and out of that came a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee. His story … is a human interest story.”

Now she talks about Terry Benson perhaps becoming a counselor at TheCenter.

“He’s studying to be a fireman,” McKinney says with a proud twinkle before taking a visitor around TheCenter to meet deputy executive director B. Keith Rogers and the other staff. “He would not only be one of the fastest, he would be one of the smartest.”

She hands me a newsletter and a souvenir program from the TRiO/Gear Up gala to show me Terry Benson’s picture. She gets sidetracked by other pictures of other success stories.

“Some of our kids struggle; a lot of them do not.

“Here’s a nice young man right here,” McKinney says, pointing at a photo of Orestes Marquetti, a chemical engineering student from Cheyenne High. “He got a full ride to Notre Dame …”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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