Clinking keys and bubbly laughter bouncing through the halls – for the past few years, this is how I’ve known that summer was finally here. This year, as the girls get settled into their dorm rooms and prepare for their final year at camp, I’m excited to reconnect with these incredible young women, who I feel in some ways have mentored me just as much as I’ve mentored them. Given that nearly one in five students at the girls’ high school won’t graduate with their peers, when I hear some worries about upcoming college applications, I feel for their anxiety but simultaneously beam with pride at how much each of them has grown.
When I first met these young women, I was finishing my first year as a doctoral student at Rice University. Without even knowing their names, I had signed up to mentor a group of five students for three years, from their freshman summer through their high school graduation. I knew that the girls were among the top-performing students at an underserved, largely Hispanic public high school in Houston and I knew that they were interested in STEM. Apart from that, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. This STEM program was different from any of my previous experiences, which usually lasted a day or two with some balloon car races or strawberry DNA extractions to briefly capture students’ attention before sending them on their way. Names and faces would get lost in the blur of children rushing to finish engineering projects or moving between lab stations, countless superficial interactions with students that I would never see again. The IBB Girls STEM Initiative, on the other hand, was a commitment to live with these young women for a week each year in a dorm on Rice’s campus and to meet with them each month during the school year, to provide ongoing support on their journey through high school and into young adulthood.
Initially, three years seemed like a long time, but now, as these students advance into their senior year, it feels like it has sped by in no time at all. While at the outset all of the girls showed some interest in STEM, their career goals have diversified over time, from aspiring psychologists and physicians to lawyers, businesswomen, activists, artists, and even a few engineers. And, despite their high school’s rankings, these students have set their sights on some of the country’s top institutes of higher education. While only one fifth of Houston-area high schoolers finish a Bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating, when my mentees matriculate next fall, they’ll be joining a long list of program alums currently excelling at universities like Harvard, Bowdoin, Wellesley, and the University of Texas at Austin.
What is it that enables our students to attend and thrive in college when so many of their peers will not? What I’ve learned over the course of this program won’t come as a surprise to any woman working in STEM: it’s a strong sense of community and networks that you can rely on in times of personal and professional need. STEM is not just about scientific breakthroughs, feats of engineering, and groundbreaking design. It’s about community, support, and the human experience. Behind every advancement is a story, behind every story is a person, and behind every person, but especially for women and minorities, is a struggle. No matter how many things students build out of cardboard and duct tape, no matter how many marble roller coasters they assemble, nothing is more important to their success than building a supportive network of people who will be there for them every step of the way.
Not to say that we didn’t paddle cardboard boats across a swimming pool or drop mock car seats from a 40-foot balcony; we did that too. But more importantly, through these activities – and through dedicated small group discussions – we built a community of students and mentors that can trust in and rely on one another for years to come. These young women have had the bravery to confront challenges far beyond any difficulties I faced at their age. By providing an outlet for them to share their struggles with peers and mentors that care about their personal success and well-being, we create a space where students can feel supported enough to tackle new obstacles and pursue their ambitions.
Unfortunately, my cohort is the last of the program’s eight-year, five-cohort run, and I’m sad to see it end. With the lack of stable funding and fast staff turnover rate at universities, it’s difficult to sustain these types of long-term interventions. If we want diversity in STEM, we need a way to develop and maintain programs like this one that provide consistent support to underrepresented minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. STEM is hard, and these students have enough struggles as it is. Academics is only one part of the equation – building support networks to address students’ personal and emotional needs is even more important. After all, scientists and engineers are more than just their job descriptions; first and foremost, they’re people, too.