Across the country, colleges and universities are helping students from underserved communities pursue careers in engineering. But one key factor is often overlooked: how to keep supporting these students after they start school.
Only 25 percent of first-generation and low-income students who enter the UW as pre-engineers will go on to earn a degree in the field. One likely cause? “These students are not getting the same level of high school education as peers from highly resourced schools,” says Sonya Cunningham, director of the STARS program at the College of Engineering.
Since 2013, STARS — the Washington STate Academic RedShirt program — has provided the extra support that underserved students from Washington need to succeed in engineering. It’s also helping increase diversity in engineering at the UW.
Initially funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the program was later supplemented by funding from the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship and an additional NSF grant.
Borrowing a term from college sports, STARS gives its students an additional “redshirt” year at the UW before they officially begin their engineering curricula. For Tammy Teal, ’18, and Ivan Cordero, a current senior, that year made all the difference.
Two paths to the UW
Teal was raised by her mother in Mukilteo, Washington. But after her mother’s multiple sclerosis advanced, Teal went to live with her father, a refugee of the Cambodian civil war, and eventually they moved to Auburn, Washington.
“I took on a lot of responsibilities at a young age,” she says, including caring for a younger brother with autism.
Teal’s parents and most of her siblings did not pursue higher education, so applying to college felt like “walking in the dark,” Teal says. She was elated when she was admitted to the UW — and the first STARS cohort.
Cordero grew up in Yakima, Washington, working in fields and orchards alongside his parents, who emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. Like Teal, he wasn’t sure at first how to approach college and financial aid applications. But he knew he wanted to try engineering: “I was always pretty good at math and science,” he says.
With his entry into STARS, Cordero knew that he’d receive the necessary support to navigate college — and his plans to become a Husky were set.
I know that without STARS, I wouldn’t be an engineer.— Tammy Teal, ’18
How STARS makes an engineering degree possible
STARS participants hit the ground running, with advising and orientation before school starts.
During fall quarter, they take introductory math and chemistry to prepare for upcoming prerequisite courses. Weekend study sessions help them tackle challenging classes like calculus and physics. Students also enroll in a STARS seminar on study skills, UW resources and professional development.
In their second year, they attend some STARS programming and meet regularly with academic advisers. But, says Cunningham, “Our job is to make sure that you don’t need us anymore.”
This is also when students choose their major. All STARS students are guaranteed a spot in the College of Engineering, but they must identify a specific degree program to pursue. Teal picked civil engineering, and Cordero went with aeronautics and astronautics.
I never thought I’d be doing the things I am now. I want a good career, so in the future I can support my parents the way they’ve supported me.— Ivan Cordero, ’19
The power of a support network
While the program’s academic support was crucial, Teal and Cordero emphasize the relationships that STARS fosters. “The biggest thing was knowing there’s a group of individuals with similar backgrounds to mine,” Cordero says. “It made me feel like I belong.”
STARS students act as a peer support system during the highs and lows of college. “You struggle together and succeed together,” says Teal. “That’s so valuable.”
Both Teal and Cordero also mention Cunningham’s mentorship as essential. “There were times when I didn’t think I had what it takes,” says Teal. “Then I’d talk to Sonya, and she’d show me that I can push through.”
Cunningham recalls a similar conversation with Cordero: “He didn’t believe he could do it,” she says. “So I talked with him about how, actually, he could. And I’m not kidding you — I saw the lightbulb go on.”
Going to college changed my life and changed the life of my family — completely and totally.— Sonya Cunningham
Expanding diversity in engineering
Fifteen students from the first STARS cohort, including Teal, graduated with engineering degrees in 2018. Teal is now a transportation engineer with Jacobs Engineering Group, working on projects like the revitalization of the downtown Seattle waterfront.
“I know that without STARS, I wouldn’t be an engineer,” she says. She hopes to pay her success forward by volunteering with Engineers Without Borders and providing financial assistance to her family.
Cordero also has bright prospects: He finished his third internship with Boeing this summer, and he hopes to join the company full time as an engineer after graduation. “I never thought I’d be doing the things I am now,” he says. “I want a good career, so in the future I can support my parents the way they’ve supported me.”
STARS is clearly making an impact on all its participants: 95 percent of students enrolled in the program have stuck with engineering through their junior year, compared with 33 percent of students from similar backgrounds who also expressed an interest in engineering when they began at the UW.
The program is also helping increase diversity in the major. Engineering is still predominantly white and male in the U.S., but half of STARS students come from underrepresented minority backgrounds.
As engineering continues to grow in popularity — and the UW freshman class keeps increasing in size — more funding will be needed for STARS to expand its cohorts. There were just 30 students in the first one, but 50 Huskies are part of the current cohort, and Cunningham hopes to enroll even more in 2019.
With additional staff and resources, STARS can continue to help students chart a successful course in school and in life. “It can be challenging to be at a university like this without someone to support you,” says Cordero. “The STARS program does a really good job of that.”
Originally published October 2018