Changing the Face of Science: Hispanic and Low-Income Students Pursuing STEM Majors Benefit from Grant-Funded Summer Program

From left are ASPIRE peer mentors Jerel Hooper and Nicole Andrade, biology professor and chairperson Michael Peek, and incoming freshman Hugo Arevalo

Incoming transfer student Ena Genao-Munoz works with chemistry professor David Snyder

A group of students new to William Paterson University now feel at-home as Pioneers and at-home in their majors in the College of Science and Health, thanks to their participation in the ASPIRE Summer Bridge Program on campus, made possible through a $4.99 million U.S. Department of Education Grant received last year.

The ASPIRE (Access to STEM Pathways through Integrated Research and Engagement) Summer Bridge Program supports Hispanic students and low-income students pursuing degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), who are about to start their freshman year or who are transferring in from community colleges.

Through the ASPRE Summer Bridge Program, incoming freshmen spent two weeks on campus in July, exploring such topics as DNA extraction and purity, mitosis and meiosis, and climate change. They also took part in various soft skills and professional development workshops, and received vital information to improve writing, note-taking, and study skills.

Meanwhile, transfer students from community colleges, who already have an associates degree in a STEM field, took part in a four-week summer research experience. Under the tutelage of faculty in the College of Science and Health, they learned about research ethics, data collection, authorship, and working with modern lab instruments.

“The students received a transformative learning experience, and they were eager and enthusiastic throughout the program,” says College of Science and Health Dean Venkat Sharma, who serves as program director and principal investigator for the Department of Education grant. Sharma lauds the many faculty and staff involved in the program from across the College and campus for providing a “supportive, educational foundation where students were encouraged to demonstrate their Will.Power and ‘Aspire for greatness’ inside and outside of the classroom as future STEM scholars and leaders at William Paterson University.” 

Ena Maria Genao Munoz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and currently lives in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, is a Bergen County Community College transfer student majoring in biotechnology. The hands-on lab experience through the ASPIRE program, she says, was very impactful. In learning about molecular docking, she also learned new research methods and used tools she’d never used before. “This summer program was the perfect introduction to William Paterson University,” she adds.

Following the ASPIRE Summer Bridge Program, through the Department of Education grant, Hispanic and low-income STEM students will have access to holistic student support services and resources on campus such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, peer mentorship, and financial assistance. They will also have access to research, internships, and faculty mentorship opportunities to promote career-focused learning experiences outside of the classroom.

“The most important thing that I learned was the amount of resources I have for the next four years,” says ASPIRE participant Hugo Arevalo, an incoming freshman biology major from Lindenwold, New Jersey. The support Arevalo has already received from faculty, staff, and upperclassmen through ASPIRE, he adds, makes him feel comfortable that he’ll be supported throughout his next four years.

Incoming freshman Ruma Parvin, a biology major from Paterson, New Jersey, agrees. “I feel that I am ready to become a WP student because of this program; it created a second family for me on campus.”