ASEMS program earns national recognition

Thursday, October 1, 2020
The University of Arizona ASEMS (Arizona's Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars) program has been named a finalist for the Excelencia in Education 2020 Examples of Excelencia awards, which recognize commitment to serving Latino college students.

The University of Arizona ASEMS (Arizona’s Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars) program today was named one of four national winners in the Excelencia in Education 2020 Examples of Excelencia awards.

Programs receive recognition for demonstrating commitment to serving Latino college students and “building environments where Latino students can thrive with intentional, culturally relevant, high-impact practices tailored to them and their communities.” UArizona ASEMS won the Baccalaureate Level award.

UArizona’s ASEMS provides support services to STEM majors from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Science, and Health Sciences who are first in their family to attend college, from low-income households, community college transfers, and from underrepresented groups such, women, minorities, and veterans.

“The award just helps recognize all the hard work that we’ve put into this program,” ASEMS Director Kimberly Sierra-Cajas said. “It’s validating the beliefs that some of us had about what was needed for students and how to really serve them in a holistic, strengths-based way that actually will have impact.”

ASEMS began as a pilot program in the spring of 2011 with 12 students and six staff and faculty volunteering their time. It now has team of seven staff and 14 board members and faculty partners serving more than 400 students per year across the four units.

ASEMS served 257 Latinx students from 2011 through the 2018-19 academic year.

Sierra-Cajas said about 70 percent of ASEMS participants are first generation college students, and 75 percent are from low-income households. Students in those groups typically face numerous hurdles to finishing STEM degrees, including economic challenges, family responsibilities, and unfamiliarity with how to navigate college academics and culture.

ASEMS has achieved remarkable success in supporting its participants in overcoming those challenges:

  • ASEMS participants over four cohorts from 2015-2018 had a combined one-year freshman retention rate of 92 percent, 10 percent above overall UA freshman STEM retention rate (82 percent).
  • Latinx ASEMS participants had a retention rate 11 percent above the overall Latinx STEM rate.
  • Among all participants who started Fall 2015 as freshmen, 93 percent of Latinx ASEMS students were retained to their fourth year and 81 percent remained in STEM majors.
  • The one-year retention rate for Latinx ASEMS who were both Pell grant recipients and first generation was 96 percent.

Dr. Ramin Yadegari, a professor of plant sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and ASEMS board member who was part of the faculty team that helped found the program, said ASEMS has flourished in large part because of strong buy-in and advocacy from participants.

“ASEMS provides a multi-faceted program that is unique in our university (and perhaps even nationally) in its depth and breadth of programs we offer to our scholars,” Yadegari said. “We have created first and foremost a community of student scholars, staff and faculty members. Our program is thriving mostly because of our scholars. We may have set out initially to create a ‘recruitment and retention’ program but its continuous success has been due to the contribution of many of our own scholars over the years. Our scholars have helped to spread the word about the program or have worked in the program as peer mentors or tutors to strengthen the program in ways that I had not predicted.”

Sierra-Cajas explained that the ASEMS team focuses on the individual needs of each student rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, she said it’s not uncommon for an ASEMS support specialist to directly communicate with a financial aid representative to help them solve an issue.

“We recruit a relatable team of mentors who are trained to mentor in a culturally-responsive, strengths-based way,” Sierra-Cajas said. “We also communicate these messages of belonging and focusing on students’ growth mindset. We have to look at their unique situation to see where they’re coming from and where they are in their path. Some of them have family responsibilities and work many, many hours; you can’t recommend they take the same course load as any other student.”

ASEMS staff also connects students to undergraduate research early in their careers by shadowing university faculty. Sierra-Cajas said that helps the students find research that’s relevant to their own experiences or what’s important to them.

“I always knew I wanted to be in STEM, but I felt like I didn’t belong,” one participant wrote in the Examples of Excelencia award application. “ASEMS helped me connect with people that have been on similar journeys. ASEMS gave me faith and strength to be myself and strive to be in STEM.”

ASEMS recently received renewal of a five-year, $1.25 million award from the U.S. Department of Education for TRIO Student Support Services, and a new three-year $284,000 USDA NIFA grant in partnership with Diné College (DC) to support DC students in undergraduate research while connecting them to a welcoming STEM community at UA with spots in the ASEMS Program. ASEMS is also funded by UArizona, the National Science Foundation, and private foundations.

Sierra-Cajas said ASEMS will continue to expand its services to its target students. ASEMS this year launched the Pima-UAZ STEM Bridge Program with Pima Community College.

The ASEMS team

ASEMS staff: Rell Ohlson, Student Support Coordinator; Fatemma Soto-Herrera, TRIO SSS STEM—ASEMS Director; Ericka Encinas, TRIO ASEMS Student Support Specialist;; Teresa Sosa, CALS ASEMS Student Support Specialist; Maya Azzi, CALS ASEMS Student Support Specialist and Plant Sciences Academic Advisor; Emma Fajardo, ASEMS Transfer Specialist; Lupita Mendez, former ASEMS Transfer Specialist (now STEM Bridge Project Manager).

ASEMS board: Nura Dualeh, Graduate College Director of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Preparation Programs, ASEMS founder; Dr. Frans Tax, MCB Professor, Graduate College Director of Diversity and Inclusion, ASEMS founder; Dr. Ramin Yadegari, Plant Sciences Professor, PI for PIF grant launching CALS ASEMS, ASEMS founder; Amanda Stevens, Manager for Finance and Administration for Plant Sciences, 1st coordinator and ASEMS founder; Cindy Neal, Assistant Director of the MARC Program, ASEMS founder; Dr. Erica Corral, Associate Professor, Materials Science and Engineering; Kimberly Sierra-Cajas, Director of Undergraduate Research & Inquiry, Interim Director of the STEM Learning Center, ASEMS founder

Faculty partners: Dr. Elliott Cheu, Interim Dean for College of Science, PI for Pilot Bridge Program grant, which launched the ASEMS Transfer Program; Dr. Katrina Miranda, Associate Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry, S-STEM PI for Supporting Success of Science Transfer Students; Dr. Regina Deil-Amen, Professor and Department Head for Educational Policy Studies and Practice, S-STEM PI for Bridging Faculty and Student Cultures: Culturally Responsive Support for STEM Students Transferring between Two- and Four-Year Hispanic Serving Institutions; Dr. Michael Marty, Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry, PI for a CAREER grant that supports veterans in undergraduate research; Dr. Jerry Lopez, CALS ASEMS Faculty Fellow; Dr. Jennifer Teske, CALS ASEMS Faculty Fellow; Dr. Armin Sorooshian, former ASEMS Faculty Fellow.

Joel Badzinski
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences