ACROSS THE COMMONS > April 2011 issue home page
Rachelle Forney and Jennifer Windsor will soon graduate with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees, but their path was anything but a straight shot.
Both overcame obstacles that could have derailed their plans were it not for the Choose Ohio First Scholarship Program (COFSP), which targets STEM students who would not normally enter or continue to be successful in pursuing a STEM degree.
Forney transferred to Akron to study electrical engineering, but struggled to meet the financial demands of tuition and supporting a family. The STEM scholarship provided both financial and academic support, enabling her to continue her studies. She balanced her studies, with working in the mailroom at FirstEnergy, where her talent and drive stood out, and today she is a senior distribution associate in the corporation’s Energy Efficiency Department and on track to graduate in 2013.
Windsor, a low-income student, had nearly exhausted her financial aid, having taken an accelerated schedule of 18-29 hours per semester, yet she was only halfway to her B.S./M.D. degree. The STEM scholarship enabled her to continue at the university, and she will graduate from the University this spring and enter medical school in the fall.
“Without the STEM scholarship, I would be a dropout,” Windsor says.
Dozens of uplifting stories like this are taking shape among the 200 student-scholars who are participants in our Choose Ohio First Scholarship program. In 2012-2013 there will be more than 400 STEM scholars, with the number of scholars at Akron having doubled every year since the program began.
In fact, our comprehensive implementation of the scholarship program — it is much more than financial support — has made it a model in the state.
The state started the scholarship program in 2007 to encourage more students to study STEM fields with the ultimate goal of increasing the number and size of science and technology businesses in Ohio.
The recession has prompted the state to reduce its support of the program, yet 28 campuses offer Choose Ohio First scholarships, and Akron’s is the largest in the state.
What sets our program apart are the extras that have enabled it to achieve a remarkable continuation rate of 94 percent.
At the core is what program director Adam Smith calls “intrusive support.” Each scholar meets regularly with one of the program’s educational specialists. Together they define an individual academic plan that sets concrete and measurable daily goals.
“When we ask a student what he’s going to do today to earn a “B” in a class, we break it down into simple steps that are attainable and measurable,” Smith says. “So if a student says he’s going to study harder, what does that mean? Does that mean that he will attend a recitation, visit a professor during office hours, spend more time in a lab? We work together to set very tangible goals.”
The program also pairs new scholarship recipients with third- and fourth-year peer mentors. Tutoring is always available through the program, and scholars get together monthly for socio-cultural events — lectures, movies, athletics — that enable the students, most of them commuters, to build relationships and social skills outside of the classroom.
Scholars come to view the program office as a refuge from the pressures of coping with college, work and family life. Fifty-one percent are first-generation college students, and often their parents and friends at home cannot relate to the recipients’ campus life. For them, Smith and his team offer a place to talk about how to manage the rigors of college.
Because math is often the greatest barrier to a STEM degree for the recipients, Smith and his team will inaugurate the “Running Start” Summer Bridge program this summer, allowing 30 incoming freshmen to live on campus and take an intensive eight-week program focused on math.
“When they finish,” Smith says, “they’ll begin their freshman year with 29 new friends (their Running Start classmates), they’ll already have earned three or four mathematics credits, and they will know the University. We believe this will give them a running start to a successful college career.”
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