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“We wanted to make sure that we use this funding, which is focused on low income and first generation students, to promote the interests of students in the STEM fields–but also to make it impactful so that they could become productive citizens and develop this self-worth of who they are and what they do.”

At Northeastern Illinois University, Aaron Cortes orchestrates opportunities for low-income or first generation college-bound youth in surrounding school districts. Cortes manages three grant-funded programs to promote students’ college preparation and degree completion: Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math and Science, 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The programs serve students who lack the resources in their school districts that would typically prepare them for strong post-secondary achievement.

Activities–which take place either at lunch, on Saturdays, or in the summer–feature project-based learning tied to academic concepts to bolster students’ learning engagement as well as core content knowledge. (For example, students may be introduced to a robotics project, through which they learn elements of engineering, through which they use math and science knowledge.) As Cortes described, “we go through the actual engagement activity first, get the students to be involved to really enjoy what they’re doing. And then from that moment, as they’re going through this process of learning with their hands and in really building things are creating things, they will be able to also jump into the academic component of it and make things relevant.”

One strength of the programs is how they seek to nurture students’ self-efficacy in the face of disadvantages, rather than pretending the inequities don’t exist. “We…make sure that this experience is reflected on as they write their essays, that the experience comes through. [Students can realize], well, yes, I’m competing against someone that has a really high ACT or SAT score–a 4.0 GPA valedictorian. But look at the experiences that I have gone through and look at where I’m coming from.”

Cortes also seeks to provide positive STEM role models through the program. “[In wealthier communities], parents…tend to participate a lot. They’ll be coaches, and they’ll have a [STEM] background, they’ll be engineers or scientists.” Seeing parents in those roles can reinforce those careers to students. However, parents of the students Cortes’ programs seek to reach “are in the blue collar workforce. They don’t have degrees.” Mentorship and tutoring from program leaders supplements this important role.

It is this attention to the whole student that makes the programs so important. Recognizing this, Cortes advocated for colleges to consider external programs when evaluating prospective students, emphasizing that college readiness is not only reflected in test scores, but also in students’ ability “to handle stress and stressful situations, and to seek their own support systems….to deal with any kind of environment that they might end up in.”