From their first weeks on campus until their last, Sydney Young (BS ’21), Esabella Irby (BS ’21) and Margarita Soltero Gutierrez (BS ’21) found plenty of academic support from the University of Denver’s Equity in STEM (E-STEM) program. Without that support, they might have opted for other fields or even left the University entirely, convinced that higher education wasn’t for them.
Instead, they graduated in June, ready to take on the world with newly minted degrees that position them for promising careers in computer science, engineering and health care.
Created in 2017 to address the inequities facing many first-generation college students from underrepresented groups, E-STEM serves roughly 100 students in four cohorts each year. Young, Irby and Soltero Gutierrez were among the first cohort, numbering more than 20 students, to collect their diplomas at summer Commencement ceremonies.
According to E-STEM director Anthea Johnson Rooen, the program enlists a holistic approach to reducing and removing social and academic barriers. “It’s not only about graduation, but it’s about finding their niche—[it’s about] when they start connecting and when they start to realize their own potential,” Johnson Rooen says.
When Young, Irby and Soltero Gutierrez look back on their experience, they note that their first year was the most challenging of all. That’s a common sentiment among E-STEM participants, and that’s why the program emphasizes a student’s first year at DU, striving to help them transition into higher education and navigate the academic and social challenges associated with work in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). With these challenges in mind, the program helps students form good study habits, connect with professors and find community in one another.
It begins the first week participants step on campus with a pre-orientation experience called “Bridge Week,” where students meet others in their cohort.
“As a first-year [student], you definitely need that kind of support,” Young, who majored in computer science, says. “If you don’t have that kind of support group, it’s more difficult to get through STEM and want to keep going through it.”
For the first E-STEM cohort, Bridge Week offered the opportunity to build lasting relationships with students who shared their hopes and misgivings and who supported each other through the inevitable difficulties. Young and Irby, for example, found themselves in the same 8 a.m. computer science class, and from there, formed an unbreakable bond. “We took every computer science class together so we wouldn’t fail,” Irby says. “If someone didn’t understand something, the other person did.”
An intentional community built on inclusion and accessibility, Irby notes, isn’t found on every college campus.
“Quite a few of my friends [at other institutions] have gone into the sciences. I can tell the difference from the support system I had compared to the support system they had,” she says. “They were really on their own. I had a friend who dropped out, because he didn’t have a support system and didn’t think he could do it. He was afraid to ask for help.”
Before enrolling at DU, Soltero Gutierrez says, she described herself as passionate but shy. Through E-STEM, she found her voice.
“E-STEM is not just checking a box of helping a student get through college,” Soltero Gutierrez, who graduated with a degree in biology, says. “We’re helping this student with their personal life. A lot of students will go through personal things that will affect their studies. We are helping students as a whole.”
It isn’t just a sense of belonging and community that sets the E-STEM program apart. Students credit Johnson Rooen’s approach to mentoring with the program’s success.
“She told me, ‘You are the living and breathing entity of your ancestors’ wildest dreams,’” Soltero Gutierrez recalls.
The E-STEM program’s holistic philosophy grows out of Johnson Rooen’s formative experience in building student communities. That dates back to 1992, when she was a hall director at the University of Colorado Boulder. Since then, she has put her observations and experiences to work creating the kind of community that keeps students engaged and primed to meet challenges.
“It’s about … really building their confidence,” she says.
That requires giving students the resources to solve problems. “You belong here,” she tells them. “You’re going to be the one at these higher levels doing problem-solving, doing politics, affecting change. It’s important here.”
Programs like DU’s E-STEM address social and market realities. The need for diverse students in these disciplines is growing, particularly if they are to reflect the society they serve. As the U.S. Census Bureau reports, 40% of Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white.
E-STEM students bring different perspectives to the classroom and laboratory, Johnson Rooen says, adding that their lived experiences are a significant asset to solving real-world problems.
“Because they are there and because of what they know and because of what they see in the communities they are in, they are able to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This might not work in ‘X’ community,’” Johnson Rooen says.
Success in the STEM disciplines, she adds, requires more than a focus on earning the highest marks. It requires someone who loves what they do and has a passion for working hard.
After four years at DU, Young, Irby and Soltero Gutierrez aim not just to forge their own paths in STEM, but also to help increase minority representation in their professions.
“We need more Black people in STEM, and we need more Black women in STEM,” says Young, who works in information technology and who believes in the power of an inspiring example. “It’s important to have Black students be able to see [other Black individuals working in STEM] visually.”
Soltero Gutierrez, meanwhile, hopes to change the health care profession one doctor at a time.
“We need more representation in the health care system specifically, more women, more minority students and minority doctors. I think it will make our health care system even better,” she says.
Irby moved to Tucson, Arizona, to work in support engineering. While at DU, she helped implement a STEM program at Strive Prep in Denver. She hopes to replicate that in Tucson, a community with a high Hispanic population.
“I didn’t have a lot of STEM exposure,” Irby says. “Getting that at a younger age will encourage more kids.”