Two-Year Colleges Prepare Underrepresented Students for Careers Via Hands-On Experiences

Area middle school students learn about manufacturing at CMI as part of the GE Bridge to Learning initiative at GTC.
Area middle school students learn about manufacturing at CMI as part of the GE Bridge to Learning initiative at GTC.

With more than 1,500 institutions serving 42 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S., two-year colleges remain a vital component of our nation’s higher education framework, serving large numbers of underrepresented students.

While these institutions offer an affordable alternative to four-year colleges and universities, they are no less relevant, with many providing high-quality education and career preparation. Three 2017 HEED Award recipients are dedicated to connecting their students to successful careers by facilitating hands-on experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.

[Middle school students learn about manufacturing at CMI as part of the GE Bridge to Learning initiative at Greenville Technical College]

EPCC Rise Bridge Scholars with Maria Alvarez (center)
EPCC Rise Bridge Scholars with Maria Alvarez (center)

El Paso Community College
At El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas, where 80 percent of students are Hispanic and many are economically disadvantaged, a focus on hands-on research drives much of the science program’s recruitment efforts. According to Maria E. Alvarez, PhD, a professor and coordinator of biology at EPCC’s Transmountain campus, many incoming students “have a distorted view of academia and science.”

“Exposure to science in the K-12 system, a lot of times, is just the cookbook approach, where you have textbooks and have to memorize things, and then in the lab you do … experiments that have predictable results,” she says. “A lot of students haven’t been exposed to the true investigative nature of science. Doing research is the best way to expose them to [this], and it makes them excited about coming to the lab.”

tudents in EPCC’s Rise to the Challenge Bridge Program
tudents in EPCC’s Rise to the Challenge Bridge Program

Through the college’s Rise to the Challenge Bridge Program, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), students gain hands-on research experience via internships with faculty mentors. The program introduces them to the investigative nature of science in order to prepare and encourage them to pursue and successfully complete a baccalaureate degree and eventually a PhD in biomedical research. To facilitate this process, EPCC partners with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and New Mexico State University (NMSU).

To be eligible for Rise, students must be enrolled full time at EPCC, be pursuing an associate of science degree, have a minimum 3.0 GPA, and demonstrate financial need. Every year, a total of 12 Rise Bridge Scholars are selected by EPCC, UTEP, and NMSU faculty to participate in research projects.

“We start with basic science activities, laboratory skills, safety, and ethics — i.e., the scientific method and some statistics — so that they learn how to manipulate and analyze data,” explains Alvarez, who is also Rise program director. “Then we have them interview different faculty researchers from EPCC, UTEP, and NMSU. Eventually they select a mentor and a project [to work on].”

While most projects have concentrated on environmental research, such as the contamination of water in the Rio Grande or drought resistance among crops, she says others have focused on issues that disproportionately affect underrepresented groups. “We try to expose them to projects that are relevant to our community; many … deal with environmental issues, but also with diseases that may be more prevalent in minority [populations] — different types of cancers, for example,” Alvarez explains. “We try to get them excited about science by doing this, keeping in mind that this is something that’s going to benefit their community.”

Rise Bridge Scholars work in the research labs year-round — 19 hours in the fall and spring semesters and 29 hours in the summer. They are paid for their time, which Alvarez says is an essential aspect of the program, as the majority of EPCC’s students need to work while enrolled. “Most of our students are economically disadvantaged; they definitely need to have an income,” she says.

Participants also have access to tutoring, advising, and supplemental instruction to help ensure their success in the program. Another component of Rise, weekly biomedical seminars and workshops introduce students to a variety of scientific topics, as well as state-of-the-art research techniques and technology, via discussions led by EPCC, UTEP, and NMSU students and faculty.

Ultimately, the goal is for Rise Bridge Scholars to share their research findings with the scientific community at national conferences. These experiences, Alvarez says, allow students to network with and be seen by recruiters from prestigious research institutions.

Previously part of NIH’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) — which is now only for four-year institutions — the Rise Bridge Scholars Program continues to have a positive effect on participants. “We have about 170 students who have participated [in either program],” says Alvarez. “Of those, 90 have graduated with baccalaureate degrees, 17 with master’s degrees, and approximately 13 [with doctorates]. Twenty are still in graduate school, five are teaching at the K-12 level, four have university faculty positions, three of them work in the industry, and one of our first students … is now a chemistry tenure-track faculty member here at EPCC.”

An RVCC student participates in a science class.
An RVCC student participates in a science class.

Raritan Valley Community College
With large minority and female student populations and a strong reputation for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) in Branchburg, N.J., focuses on improving access to these fields for those groups most underrepresented in STEM.

“We recognize … the importance of making sure that we provide access for women and underrepresented minorities to STEM disciplines and careers because we know there is stability, there’s financial security with many of these professions,” says Shay Wadher, coordinator of academic success at RVCC. “Also, there’s a shortage of women and underrepresented minorities in many STEM professions.”

Designed to recruit and retain more students — particularly women and underrepresented minorities — to STEM fields, the Sanofi U.S. Corporate Mentor Program at RVCC connects these young people, many of whom are also first-generation and lack professional role models, with mentors. These industry professionals introduce them to real-life work situations and offer guidance regarding career goals, setting them up for successful degree completion at RVCC and preparing them to transfer to a four-year institution. Wadher, along with Coordinator of Internship and Cooperative Education Alicia Hermo-Weaver, coordinate the program.

Students conduct an experiment in a lab on RVCC’s campus.
Students conduct an experiment in a lab on RVCC’s campus.

In the pilot year of the Sanofi Corporate Mentor Program, which launched last fall, 10 RVCC students were selected to participate; in order to be eligible, applicants must be graduating in spring or summer 2018, have at least a 2.75 GPA, and demonstrate leadership qualities. Those selected meet with their mentors in person once a month for structured sessions focused on training and reflection. Wadher says they are encouraged to have regular phone or Skype meetings as well.

“In the [structured] meetings, we have a group activity, and then we provide time for the mentors and mentees to connect; they usually have discussions about career exploration, what it means to be a professional, interviewing skills, and corporate culture, as well as other topics. We’ve done some work with them beforehand to identify their long- and short-term goals, and so a lot of the discussions are based on that,” explains Wadher. “What we’re finding is that the relationships are really flourishing organically so that mentors and mentees are connecting with each other outside of the structured meetings.”

This spring, students will also shadow their mentors at Sanofi to learn more about their roles and responsibilities, and they will attend a career development seminar designed to introduce them to the career planning process. They are also required to participate in workshops that cover résumé writing, communication, and time management. “In addition to their academic success, we also want to prepare them with the soft skills that are really important to be successful in a corporate setting, or in any setting for that matter,” says Wadher.

Students who participate in all required activities receive a $1,500 scholarship midway through the program to help cover tuition costs. Wadher says that because of the success of the program, Sanofi has agreed to continue to support it and will select five additional students next year, for a total of 15.

“What we’ve found is that almost all of our students have gained so much from having this relationship with their mentors, being able to connect with an industry professional who can guide them in terms of what they need to think about within their particular interest area,” she says. “Since many of our students are first-generation, they have not had that information, so I think that’s something they’ve really valued.”

Other efforts by RVCC to support women and underrepresented minorities in STEM have included a STEAM Task Force, which has been developing recruitment, retention, and completion strategies for these students. These have included recommendations on enhancing the curriculum to better engage these individuals and identifying partnerships that can support improved access to STEAM fields, among others.

“Our [STEM and STEAM] recruitment and retention efforts touch the lives of so many of our students,” says Wadher, “many of whom didn’t necessarily think that a college campus was the right place for them.”

Attendees at GTC’s Girls Auto Know event for middle school girls
Attendees at GTC’s Girls Auto Know event for middle school girls

Greenville Technical College
As a feeder for many locally based national companies, Greenville Technical College (GTC) in South Carolina operates on the principle that a thriving community of students translates to an equally thriving economic community. As such, the college works hard to meet the needs of both its diverse student population and its corporate partners, many of which are large regional employers.

“Manufacturing in South Carolina has been growing at a pretty good clip. Especially coming out of the recession, companies were clamoring for the workforce they needed to continue to grow,” says David Clayton, director of the Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI) at GTC. “So we needed to expand our footprint, add more technologies, and continue to evolve the way we teach and what we teach. That was really the genesis for the center — responding to the needs of local employers.”

Opened in fall 2016, the $25-million, 100,000-square-foot CMI is fully equipped with the latest and most advanced technology and machines, such as 3-D printers and robotics and automation technologies, as well as educational facilities. With a student population that is more than 30 percent African American and Hispanic and 41 percent female, GTC, through the center and with the backing of local corporate sponsors, facilitates a range of opportunities for these individuals in manufacturing and STEM fields.

Area middle school students learn about manufacturing at CMI as part of the GE Bridge to Learning initiative at GTC.
Area middle school students learn about manufacturing at CMI as part of the GE Bridge to Learning initiative at GTC.

At CMI, students engage in industry-led projects that “expose [them] to real-world problems and the uncertainties that come with those” as well as keep them on the “cutting edge” of technology, Clayton says. Local companies also work with CMI, leasing space in its manufacturing business incubator, to bring projects into the classroom.

“Companies tend not to want to hire anybody into a manufacturing role that doesn’t have some experience working in a manufacturing environment because they want them to have experienced shop safety and work practices, know the vocabulary, and understand how to work well with others,” explains Clayton. “Those are prerequisites for most jobs, so that’s what we try to offer.”

For students, this often means apprenticeships in addition to hands-on learning at CMI. These paid experiences along with flexible class schedules are just some of the ways that GTC tries to meet the unique needs of its diverse students, many of whom are also working or have families.

“The way that our classes are offered, with some of them online and all of them offered in evening and morning sessions, [allows us to] meet scheduling needs. [It helps students] meet the needs of their employers, but also family and other obligations,” says Clayton, adding that nearly 40 percent of GTC’s student body participates in a formal apprenticeship program. “They’ll work 20 hours a week in a plant and then study 20 hours with us. There is nothing that helps with persistence like a paycheck.”

GTC’s efforts to recruit and support underrepresented students in manufacturing and STEM also involves K-12 outreach via partnerships with local employers. The GE Bridge to Learning initiative, for example, facilitates fieldtrips for area middle and high school students to introduce them to advanced manufacturing, and next fall, CMI will launch a program called the Advanced Manufacturing Academy — sponsored by Bosch Rexroth — to allow high school seniors to begin college-level courses in this area.

In addition, GTC collaborates with the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and Greenville County School District to host Manufacturing Day, as well as with the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum and Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research to host Girls Auto Know. The latter event, Clayton says, brings middle school girls to CMI to learn about the product engineering life cycle and engage in hands-on activities.

These and other efforts by GTC have resulted in what Clayton says is a placement rate that exceeds 90 percent. He hopes that in addition to facilitating pathways to employment, the college’s outreach and support demonstrate the many benefits that come with a career in manufacturing.

“What we’re trying to do is open the eyes of folks to what advanced manufacturing can do for them, and the return on investment,” explains Clayton. “You spend two years here, graduate debt-free, and make a great living.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. El Paso Community College is a 2013-2017 HEED Award recipient. Raritan Valley Community College is a 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017 HEED Award recipient. Greenville Technical College is a 2014 and 2017 HEED Award recipient. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.