Campus group encourages Native Americans, Hispanics in science


Despite efforts to encourage minority students to pursue degrees in the sciences, such as chemistry, physics or biology degrees, enrollment numbers at the University of Utah are low.

Native American and Hispanic students comprise less than half a percent of all 21,566 undergraduate students from fall 2008, according to enrollment records from the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis. The majority are enrolled in the College of Humanities or Nursing. Only 6 percent are enrollment in the College of Science.

“Nationally, one of the fields of study under-represented is sciences,” said Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president for the Office of Diversity at the U “We want to make sure the University of Utah can attract many more students of color to the programs, even by bringing students from across the country.”

Villalpando helped organize a national conference for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in October 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference brought students interested in science degrees from all around the world to the U.

The Utah student chapter for SACNAS doesn’t think the U is doing enough to encourage students.

Doug Rodriguez, a physics graduate student and secretary of the Utah chapter, said the low enrollment numbers are frustrating but not surprising.

“Science has always had low interest, but even when students sign up for a degree they often drop out,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and SACNAS Utah Chapter President Mauricio Rascon have plans to improve those numbers.

By December, the chapter will begin to visit elementary, junior and high schools in the Salt Lake Valley to talk to students and encourage them to continue to higher education and major in science-related degrees.

“A lot of students ask: What am I going to do with a physics degree?” Rascon said.  “Most people think they can just teach. They don’t know about all the opportunities available for medical physics or other career paths.”

Rodriguez said the need is especially great among Native American students. According to the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis 2008 enrollment records, of the 150 Native American students enrolled at the University of Utah, only 12 are in the College of Science.

To combat these low numbers, College of Science Dean Pierre Sokolsky recently created a committee to help retain minority students to study biology, chemistry and physics degrees.

Rodriquez said that for every science degree, about 70 percent of all students listed as caucasian who enroll complete their degree, but only 10 percent of all Native American and Hispanic student graduates with a science degree.

“We’re going to hold mentoring sessions and have juniors, seniors and graduate students influence the newer freshmen [and] sophomores, and hopefully convince them to go into graduate school and bump these numbers up,” Rodriguez said.

The older students can also help them with difficult classes and subjects, he said.

Rascon said he remembers the effort it took to work through difficult classes, especially upper-level math classes. He said there were times he considered switching majors.

“When you go into the sciences, it’s like learning a whole new language,” Rascon said. “And if you don’t schedule your classes right, you can get extremely overwhelmed.”

Moises Terrazas, a former president of the student group, said teachers make a big difference in helping a student stay motivated.

“The people that gave me the motivation to continue was my family and good mentors in the science department,” he said.

Villalpando said the U is an excellent place for students of color to study sciences. He said many diverse students are already interested in studying with Mario Capecchi, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.

“Capecchi is a great example of a student facing adversity and trial, and making revolutionary discoveries in science,” Villalpando said.

Rodriguez said some students struggle to pay for school and become discouraged.

The Utah SACNAS chapter tries to combat financial problems by offering about 10 scholarships every year to high schools students who will study at the U. The scholarships range from full tuition to half tuition for a year.

Rodriguez said many students don’t know that graduate schools often offer to pay students’ tuition.

Yet, the Utah SACNAS chapter has made strides over the past few years to encourage Native American and Hispanic students at the U to enroll in the College of Science and involve themselves in activities on campus.

Derek Lokni, a chemistry student and the U who is Navajo, said he joined SACNAS to meet other students and take part in activities on campus. He said more students should be interested in the group, but many don’t know it exists.

“Members of the (chapter) have helped me stay in chemistry,” Lokni said. “And it’s a lot of fun. We talk about some of the goals we have after graduation and what we like about chemistry, physics, biology or anything else. It’s there for you.”

MESA: Representing the underrepresented


Think for a moment about all the educational programs being offered to students. Now think about the programs that are specifically aimed toward underrepresented populations, ethnic minorities and women. If you cannot think of any then you have not heard of MESA: the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program.

This national program helps ethnic minority and female students achieve educational goals by providing them with an array of educational and financial opportunities as well as support. Although MESA helps all of these students, Hispanic and Latino/Latina students in particular have seen the advantages of being in the program.

The number of Hispanic students in MESA has steadily increased over the years. According to the MESA 2007 Fall Manual, Utah has 114 schools that implement the program. Hispanic students involved in MESA increased from 1,413 last year to 1,653. Although it is not a large increase, it is a significant growth. The specific reason for the increase of Hispanic participants in the program is unknown – however it is proof that the program is a positive influence on Hispanic students.

Furthermore, Hispanic students have seen for themselves the results and progress that can take place with being a member of MESA. Jhoanna Quezada and Marily Hernandez, 8th-grade students from Brockbank Junior High, said other students who are not involved in the program should definitely consider it. “It can [help] keep your grades up. It helps our nationality grow and it gives Hispanics a better image,” Quezada said.

Social networking is another added benefit for younger students. “You get to interact with other schools and it helps different cultures work together,” Hernandez said.

Dr. Lyn Burningham, the Alternative Language Services Consultant and the director of MESA at the Jordan School District, said the students are usually exposed to two stages of language acquisition in the program, cognitive academic language proficiency and basic interpersonal communication skills. With exposure to academic language, Burningham said, students tend to feel less marginalized and more comfortable in social settings.

The program offers a variety of activities that allow the students to learn social skills. Some of the activities include monthly meetings, field trips to universities, science fair projects and annual contests, such as MESA Day.

This year, MESA Day for junior high students in the Granite district was held March 19 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City, but the location for this event varies by year and by district. During the event, students from all 16 middle schools participated in six activities:  the egg drop, krypto, trebuchet, super slinger, surprise and the mystery activity. These activities are designed to challenge the students to use math, engineering and science education to complete the specific objectives of the competition.

In addition, MESA introduces students to large corporations that are actively involved in the program’s industry advisory council, such as L-3 Communications, ATK Launch Systems Group and Intermountain Health Care. When students interact with these large companies, it provides these students with a possible vision of their future, as well as exposes them to many types of opportunities such as scholarships and internships as well.

MESA also helps other students who may not be interested in math, engineering, or science. Ayleen Velez, the TBD department manager of Nordstrom, was a member of MESA throughout junior high and high school.

“They taught me a lot of public speaking skills, interviewing skills, and how to be myself and open in public and show charisma,” Velez said.

She obtained a scholarship through the program and although she decided to major in interpersonal communication. “I feel like it really helped me establish who I am and I use a lot of the skills they taught me,” Velez said. She also believes MESA assists Hispanic students in cases where parents do not have the knowledge of how the school system works or are not able to teach their children how to get into college.

Moreover, the program assists with SAT/ACT preparation, provides career counseling and mentoring and tutoring sessions. Because students are expected to obtain good grades in order to stay in the program, MESA tracks their grades and progress. Most students join the program when they first enter junior high either through recruitment at registration or through a referral from a math or science teacher. Other students join because their friends are in it or because their siblings were in it. Burningham said the earlier students join the program the better because they can take full advantage of MESA and its benefits.

In fact, the Granite district has begun implementing MESA into elementary schools. Currently seven elementary schools administer the program: Jackling, Academy, Monroe, Silver Hills, Stansbury, Wright and Fox Hills. Charlene Lui, the director of MESA and Education Equity for the Granite district, said it hopes to obtain more funding so eventually all of the elementary schools will have MESA.

“It’s a great learning environment for kids to be in and I feel like it helps them to be more well-rounded,” Velez said.

According to the fall manual, the MESA vision is to provide educational opportunities to all ethnic minority and female students through this program and its partnership with higher education and business industries. “It helps students solidify academic achievement and also provides them with a sense of belonging,” Lui said. The Utah MESA program has been helping the underrepresented population for 20 years.

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