Wesley Cannon Scholars Program Provides Support for Low-Income STEM Majors

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When Riza Bautista started as an undergraduate student at Wesley College, a small liberal arts and minority-serving institution in Dover, Del., she decided to study nursing. She was guided by the oft-repeated advice from friends and family to “make these four years count.”

For Bautista, a returning student in her early 30s with a husband and children, the promise of steady employment was attractive. “People told me it’s a guarantee I could get a job,” she says.

But Bautista found herself drawn to numbers; she loves assessing probability and calculating risk. One year into Wesley’s nursing program, she enrolled in several math courses and learned about the range of careers available to mathematics majors. Recalling family and friends’ advice, she decided to truly make her time in college count and changed her major to math.

In the two years since, she has presented research at three symposia, earned six awards and scholarships, and is considering graduate school — a move she says she would have never contemplated before attending Wesley. And she believes it was all made possible because of the university’s Cannon Scholars Program.

The program, launched last year with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is designed to recruit and retain low-income undergraduate students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The goals of the program are three-fold: increase the number of underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students graduating with STEM degrees, prepare students to pursue graduate or professional programs, and increase the number of skilled employees in STEM fields.

Particularly striking are the program’s safeguard features, which were structured to ensure student success and developed after years of departmental analysis and evaluation. One such safeguard — funded by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in 2011 and conducted by higher-education consultants at Credo, a consulting firm serving private colleges and universities in the U.S. — looked at Wesley’s strengths, aspirations, and results regarding retention. The findings were significant: More than 95 percent of students received federal financial aid, and the median adjusted gross family income of students was less than $35,000. The report cited financial insecurity as the main reason for students dropping out of Wesley — powerful data considering that Wesley’s first- to second-year retention rate for 2010-2013 averaged 46 percent.

Malcolm D’Souza, PhD, professor of chemistry and associate dean of interdisciplinary and collaborative sponsored research, says diminishing the financial burden for students was the primary motivation for partnering with the NSF.

[Top photo: Malcolm D’Souza, professor of chemistry and associate dean of interdisciplinary and collaborative sponsored research, oversees Cannon Scholars at work in the Wesley College organic chemistry lab.]

“We have some very good students, but they can only come to school if they get tuition support,” he says.

As a first-generation college graduate who immigrated to the United States from India, D’Souza is acutely aware of the challenges faced by some Wesley students — challenges that go beyond funding to include classroom preparedness and social support on campus.

The Cannon Scholars Program helps students overcome those challenges. Designed to simultaneously engage students in meaningful work while mitigating barriers that might stymie their success, the program has two major features: research and peer/faculty support.

Cannon Scholars and D’Souza attend the American Chemical Society meeting in Denver, Co., in March 2015.
Cannon Scholars and D’Souza attend the American Chemical Society meeting in Denver, Co., in March 2015.

Like Bautista, senior and biological chemistry major Dionne Williams aspired to be a health professional — that is, until her sophomore year organic chemistry class with D’Souza, considered to be the most difficult course in the STEM curriculum.

D’Souza remembered Williams as quiet and withdrawn early in the semester. When he learned that she, too, was a first-generation student, he better understood her trepidation and reached out to help. Soon, Williams changed her major from biology to biological chemistry. She began assisting with research and ended up earning a NASA Delaware Space Grant College Program tuition award for measuring the reaction rates of chemical compounds used as flame retardants in space suits.

Over the summer, both Bautista and Williams stayed busy doing research projects. Bautista worked with D’Souza to study the impact of obesity on various demographics in Delaware, and Williams, through a hospital internship, studied the risk stratification of newer anticoagulants in patients with traumatic brain injuries.

“At a big university, I never would have been exposed to these things,” says Bautista.

And program participants do more than just research. “Our students have actually co-authored and peer-reviewed publications, which is very unusual for undergraduates. They’re winning national presentation awards for their work,” says D’Souza.

For Cannon Scholars, program participation is both an academic opportunity and a campus experience. Students are encouraged to join living-learning communities and are required to enroll in project-based courses in which they collaborate and build connections with others, including professors.

“STEM faculty are so involved with students, and that’s only made possible with programs like Cannon Scholars,” says D’Souza. “Our class sizes are small. Activities are done together.”

If the first year of the Cannon Scholars Program is any indication of how it will fare in the future, the STEM initiative is in good shape. Of the 27 students originally enrolled in the 2014-2015 cohort, only one is not returning.

“That’s quite a significant success for us because of the [overall] retention rate at the college. We’re at about 90 percent, and that’s a great number,” says D’Souza.●

Sarah Edwards is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.