Last week, The Education Trust released a national report highlighting Stony Brook University’s dramatic success in improving the graduation rates of its underrepresented minority students. Between 2004 and 2010, Hispanic graduation rates increased from 42 percent to 58 percent, virtually matching the white graduation rate of 59 percent. The university was also lauded for its continued success with African-Americans, who graduate at a rate of 71 percent.

The Education Trust cited Stony Brook’s minority-assisting programs as significant factors in this growth.

“Stony Brook was successful because their diverse programming succeeded in creating close-knit communities of students,” said Mary Nguyen, an analyst with the Education Trust and co-author of the report. “SBU has programs targeted specifically to low-income students and students of color, and various STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] programs that help support and engage students in their academics.”

STEM smart is an umbrella name for a variety of subsidiaries that provide support for disadvantaged high school and college students who wish to pursue degrees in the hard sciences. College students receive tutoring services and financial aid if needed, and they also attend career preparation workshops. In addition, many are offered internships or research opportunities with faculty. High school students attend problem-solving workshops, learn proper study habits and are educated about college costs.

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David L. Ferguson, a professor of applied math and statistics at SBU, is the director of several STEM smart programs. “Over the last 25 years,”  he said in an email interview, “Stony Brook University has come a long way in advancing diversity in STEM.  Programs have been evolving, and achievements are a result of collaborative efforts among diversity programs, faculty and staff, and new curricular approaches in such areas as chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and engineering.”

Ferguson was ecstatic about the report, adding that he “was delighted to see our university recognized for the great advances that we have made in boosting the graduation rates of Hispanic and African American students.”

In the email, he touched upon several programs operating under the STEM smart banner: the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), which is funded by the New York State Education Department, and the SUNY Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). Of

the 300 students in the programs, 46 percent had GPAs that exceeded 3.00 and 25 percent made the Dean’s List. In addition, 12 percent received academic merit-based scholarships from such institutions as NASA and the National Science Foundation.

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Sophomore Wilka Carvalho, a physics major and participant in LSAMP, was interested in attending a research abroad program in Taiwan, but had difficulty finding a path towards acceptance. “I had only been in large classes, with little chance to interact with my professors,” he said.  After asking LSAMP for assistance, he was given help in paying for the program and received a recommendation letter from his adviser.

“One of the benefits of LSAMP and other such programs is that they give students, especially underclassmen, interaction with staff that can potentially be very helpful,” Carvalho said. “Through that program I was able to enter a physics and astronomy research program as well.” Carvalho, who is Hispanic and black, is slated to graduate in 2015.

The Education Opportunity Program (EOP), another subsidiary of STEM smart, was also given special attention. Established on the SBU campus in 1968, the EOP offers several workshops meant to prepare neglected minority and low-income students for college coursework, including a five-week summer ‘boot camp’ program, mandatory study skill workshops for students who fall behind and personal and academic advising.

Cheryl Hamilton, the director of the EOP, told the Education Trust that the students and faculty participating in the program form family-like bonds. “Each adviser knows you by your first, middle and last name,” she said.

Ferguson says that underrepresented minorities were disconnected from one another when he first arrived at SBU in 1981. In addition to the STEM smart programs, student-run organizations rose to the challenge of finding ways to organize underrepresented minorities into a like-minded community.

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“[We help] not only Hispanic students, but all minorities in the STEM fields by developing their leadership, professional, and academic skills,” Dana Angelo, president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said. “SHPE helps Hispanic and minority students in the STEM fields succeed by creating a supportive environment where each member can be a role model and be an example for one another and their community. Our upperclassmen members give advice and mentor the underclassmen so that they do not feel alone in their struggles.”

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