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Let’s get first-gen students into STEM fields — and keep them there

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Hello and welcome to First Gen!

Like many writers, I often joke that I chose this life in part to get as far away from advanced science and math education as possible. 

I was still school-aged when the tech boom convinced the powers-that-be put all their faith in science and technology to save education so I got the message that a future in STEM was the surest path to a degree and future security. I have no regrets about forgoing the pre-med or engineering path, but I do wonder how I’d feel differently about the subjects if my introduction to them had felt less like a mandate and more instructive on how to explore STEM. 

How could STEM education for first-generation students not only invite them into unfamiliar spaces but teach them how to thrive in them? That’s a question Mukta Dharmapurikar, an incoming freshman at Harvard University, has been answering for years. 

When she was still in high school, Mukta founded EverCurious, an organization that offers free STEM education sessions and mentorship for middle and early high school students interested in pursuing a future in STEM.

For first-generation students who want to pursue STEM in college, the battle often begins before they’ve even reached their first college classroom. Because of the STEM push at the elementary and secondary school levels, a lot is presumed about the level of exposure a student entering college will have had to these fields before their freshman year. 

For many first-generation students, however, those opportunities for coding boot camps, specialty immersion programs, and mentorship weren’t available to them even if they’ve known for years that they’re interested in those fields.

Through her work and her relationships with members of her own family, Mukta has seen the struggles first-generation college students face while trying to navigate college. In today’s newsletter, she writes about how we can help first-gen students to be better prepared for the transition.

‘Teach them how to pursue STEM, not just how to do it’

Tolu, a middle schooler from North Carolina, has some years to go before he has to think about higher education, but he already knows what he wants his future to look like. 

“I would like to graduate with a degree in engineering or robotics, but if that didn’t work out, I’d like to study the human brain,” Tolu said, adding that he hopes to be the first in his family to attend a college or university.

But for future first-generation students like Tolu, it’s hard to overcome the high barriers to entry, including difficult prerequisites and a lack of diversity in STEM careers. Schools often don’t adequately prepare students to succeed in a STEM career or provide STEM-specific vocational support, resulting in the under-completion of STEM degrees. This issue is especially prevalent in marginalized communities: Less than 33% of Latino/a students and 20% of African-American students finish their STEM degrees in six years, compared to 46% of White and Asian students. 

This sounds familiar to Cinthya Plazas, a first-generation student at UNC-Chapel Hill. She notes that many first-gen students struggle in college because of a lack of exposure to STEM careers. 

“I think it’s really important that [students] know what they’re signing up for [and] be exposed to different career paths…because it can be really discouraging thinking that you want to do something and then finally seeing it in action and realizing that’s not what you wanted to do, but you’ve put so much time and effort into working towards it.” 

Why don’t students know what they’re signing up for? The answer lies in our secondary education system, which teaches students how to do STEM, but not always how to pursue STEM. A 2015 survey conducted by nonprofit YouthTruth found that only about 46% of high schoolers believe that school has “helped them figure out which careers match their interests/abilities.” Only 49% believe their school has “helped them understand the steps they will need to take in order to have the career they want.” As a middle schooler, Tolu hasn’t heard much about college at all, except for the research he’s done on his own. 

“With my parents not [having gone] to college, there’s some things I have to figure out before them so that I can help them.” 

Many schools don’t place an emphasis on vocational education, even though it can help first-generation students plan their career paths. For Cinthya, one particular experience made a huge difference: an internship at the emergency department at UNC Hospital. 

“I was able to learn a lot more about what it’s like to work in healthcare and about different health professions. It was really inspiring and motivating to see that there’s more options besides just going to medical school,” she said. “And if you do go to medical school, you’re likely to come into contact with a lot of different professions, not just doctors.” 

Because of this internship, she’s now been opened to a whole world of possibilities for a future career path, possibilities she never would have known existed otherwise. 

Engaging with students like Cinthya and Tolu taught me the power of exposing students to STEM careers. Last year, I began hosting free community vocational STEM workshops through Ever Curious, an organization I created to encourage underrepresented students to pursue a future in STEM. 

I saw immense potential for growth. I watched students buzz with excitement about careers they had never heard of, such as medical illustration and marine biology. I watched them quickly scribble notes during lessons about how to succeed in high school STEM classes or pursue laboratory research. I watched them begin to imagine a future for themselves, a future in STEM. 

This year, Cinthya is graduating from college and planning to apply to medical school. She identifies exposure to STEM careers as a huge factor in her college success, noting that “early exposure is really important to make sure that people end up happy in their career.” By providing vocational resources earlier in high school, schools can encourage more first-generation students to pursue a future in STEM. For students entering a labor force where STEM jobs are expected to grow 8% in the next decade alone, these resources could pave the way to a successful future. 

As our world continues to face growing challenges, the research and innovation produced in scientific and technological fields have become more important than ever. Whether it’s pioneering successful desalination technology or developing a vaccine for HIV, there’s a strong need for more students to develop the scientific problem-solving skills required to solve global problems, skills that are built and honed through STEM degrees. In essence, it’s young people like Tolu, first-generation college students pursuing STEM careers, who hold the key to our world’s future.

Mukta Dharmapurikar is a rising freshman at Harvard University who is passionate about sustainability and global health innovation. Her journalism portfolio won the $10,000 New York Times Writing Portfolio Award and her writing has been recognized by the US Consul General in Hamburg through the Amerikazentrum International Journalism Program.

Submit to First Gen!

If you’d like your work to be featured in a future newsletter, please send your pitches for personal essays, articles, and photojournalism about the first-generation college student experience. You don’t have to be first-gen to submit, but you do have to have a story to tell relating to the first-gen experience. The guidelines for pitching can be found here.

Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at zipporahosei@gmail.com.

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