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Peer support for STEM careers

By Rachel Palermo '15
November 20, 2012

St. Olaf College students Tenzin Choedon '15, Nancy Moua '15, and Sebastian Ford '16 listen to a presentation at a STEM cohort meeting earlier this fall. Photos by Marie Frederickson

At one meeting, they talk about which classes to take and when to apply for internships.

At another, they discuss summer research opportunities.

And at every meeting, they provide each other with peer-to-peer support, guidance, and encouragement about pursuing a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

They are the members of the STEM cohort at St. Olaf College, a group organized through TRiO Student Support Services (SSS) that serves as a peer network for underrepresented and first-generation college students interested in studying the sciences.

Led by Reginald Woods '13, Gabriela Bosmenier Cruz '13, Guttu Maskalo '14, Lansa Dawano '14, and Lee Vang '14, the program — advised by SSS staff members Kathy Glampe '92 and Wendy Gonzalez and funded through the college's membership in the North Star STEM Alliance — is in its second year at St. Olaf. It's been so successful that SSS is piloting a similar cohort for students pursuing majors in the social sciences.

Leaders of the STEM cohort include (from left) Lee Vang '14, Lansa Dawano '14, Reginald Woods '13, Guttu Maskalo '14, and Gabriela Bosmenier Cruz '13.

STEM cohort leaders organize weekly seminars addressing a wide range of topics, often inviting faculty and staff members to come speak to the group. From resumé and cover letter workshops provided by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career to advice on study strategies in the STEM fields hosted by the Academic Support Center, students in the cohort receive tailored support and guidance.

They also receive the encouragement of cohort leaders, who push them to pursue undergraduate research experiences, establish industry connections, earn leadership opportunities, and develop professional skills. And because it comes from students just like them, the advice often carries significant weight for cohort participants.

"By providing resources and opportunities, this program does a great job at encouraging students to work harder, aim for a higher education, and believe that attaining success, though it may be difficult, is possible and achievable," says Dawano, who plans to pursue a career in medicine.

The STEM cohort has helped students like Dawano both academically and socially. Whenever academic work becomes challenging, Dawano says the peer network of the STEM cohort keeps her motivated.

Students gather for a STEM cohort meeting earlier this fall. In addition to the opportunities on campus, cohort leaders coordinate trips to conferences where students can hear from professionals working in the STEM fields.

In addition to the opportunities on campus, the cohort leaders coordinate trips to conferences where students can hear from professionals working in the STEM fields. Last spring, Maskalo attended the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, which he says was an eye-opening experience.

"I was given the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary students and professionals, and I made great connections that I still keep in contact with," Maskalo says.

This year students in the STEM cohort have already attended an event at the University of Minnesota that gave them the opportunity to learn about summer research opportunities and explore options for graduate school. 

Maskalo says the goal of the program is to open a line of communication between the students and the world of science. They want to foster an environment where the students are able to become acclimated to science and seek out research opportunities.

"The STEM cohort greatly benefits students at St. Olaf because it allows us to leave our comfort zones and go out and explore different possibilities," he says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or