For many of Stevens’ incoming freshmen, it was a long and challenging road to arrive on campus for the fall 2020 semester, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But, for some of those students, the obstacles they’ve encountered have been far greater than others.
Students from underserved communities and under-resourced backgrounds can face long odds when it comes to pursuing a STEM education and career, particularly those who are underrepresented in STEM. That reality is reflected in the racial and ethnic disparities that exist in the technology industry, where Black employees make up less than 8% of the U.S. hi-tech workforce and Hispanic employees even fewer. (Source: “Black and Hispanic underrepresentation in tech: It’s time to change the equation,” Brookings, March 28, 2018.)
“These inequities are unacceptable,” says Stevens President Nariman Farvardin. “Talented students from all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups deserve opportunities to pursue study in disciplines that fuel our nation’s economy. Increasing these opportunities will result in a more diverse workforce.”
That’s why three years ago, Stevens launched the ACES (Accessing Careers in Engineering and Science) program — one of President Farvardin’s highest-priority initiatives. It’s a partnership among Stevens, high schools in underserved communities and the corporate sector, with the aim of increasing access to educational and career opportunities for underrepresented minority (URM) students and providing the resources and support needed for them to succeed.
Partnering with high schools to help students pursue their dreams
At the heart of the program are the ongoing relationships that have been built with ten partner high schools in New Jersey and New York. Stevens provides these schools with educational support for students, school counselor and STEM teacher professional development, and tuition-free scholarships for students to attend Stevens’ summer Pre-College programs.
“The partnership with Stevens has been amazing,” says Samantha Crockett, college to careers program manager at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, a high school in Newark, New Jersey. “Stevens is constantly reaching out and offering different programs for our students and faculty, including career development workshops and sessions for students and parents to receive help with their FAFSA applications. But the most impactful program for our students is the Pre-College summer program, which they could never dream of attending without the full scholarships provided through ACES.”
ACES students join other high schoolers for one- or two-week summer sessions with a host of courses to choose from, including biomedical engineering, introduction to coding, engineering boot camp, business explorer and cybersecurity, to name just a few. While in past years, students have lived on campus and had the opportunity to have a full college experience, because of the pandemic, summer 2020 sessions were held remotely.
“We had four students participate in this past summer’s program and despite COVID and the online experience, they were super excited by the opportunity,” says Crockett. “It really opens their eyes to the many different entry ways into STEM — even through business and law. It’s also a great way for them to learn what a field really entails and if it’s the right choice for them.”
Didier Jean-Baptiste, dean of seniors and college placement at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, another ACES partner, agrees. “Many of our students don’t have parents working in these fields, or even ones who have gone to college. This program gives them the confidence that ‘yes, I can do this,’ and allows them to see the path forward. It inspires them to find a way to pursue their dream.”
For many ACES students who have attended the Pre-College program, pursuit of that dream continues with their STEM studies in college. Those who matriculate at Stevens receive ongoing support through the program, including financial aid, academic support and peer mentoring. They are also provided opportunities for co-operative education, internships and networking with companies that can help set them on a successful career path.
For Angelene Veloce, a current Stevens student, ACES has made all the difference. Her experience while attending the Pre-College program prior to her senior year of high school helped her figure out that laboratory research was not her thing and that business was.
“The Pre-College program really was a transformational experience for me. If I hadn’t had the chance to attend and the scholarship to pay for it, I probably would have gone down the wrong path of study, which could have been really detrimental to my ability to graduate in four years,” says Veloce. “I credit ACES and the Pre-College program with making it clear to me what I wanted to pursue in college and that I wanted to do it here at Stevens.”
Evidence of ACES success
ACES has not only made a real difference for the schools and students involved in the program, it has also helped Stevens increase the proportion of URM students attending the Pre-College program from 16.8% in 2016 to 21.1% in 2019 and in the freshman class from 12.8% in 2016 to 17.4% in 2020. In addition, first-year students who enrolled at Stevens in 2018 and received an ACES scholarship had a 97% retention rate and an average GPA of 3.3 after their first year. By fostering and nurturing diversity, initiatives like ACES can help improve data showing that about 37% of Latino and 40% of Black STEM students switch majors as undergraduates, compared with 29% of white STEM students. (Source: “Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields,” Educational Researcher, April 2019.)
The program’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In addition to receiving full institutional support, with 100% of Stevens Board of Trustees members committing to help fund the initiative, ACES was recently recognized by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association with its Diversity and Inclusion Award and was honored with the 2019 Innovation in Education Award by the New Jersey Tech Council.
“We believe ACES has the potential to be a national model to increase opportunities for talented, deserving students and to produce a STEM workforce that is representative of our nation’s population,” says President Farvardin. “A robust innovation economy depends on a deep and diverse talent pool, and ACES is an important tool to advance this important goal.”