Access to higher education is a key driver of upward social mobility and economic success. Yet, for many students from low-income families or underrepresented communities, the path to college is filled with obstacles.
In response to this challenge, Stony Brook University receives funding from the New York State Education Department to offer two statewide outreach programs to support underrepresented students’ academic, professional and personal development: the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) and the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP). These programs are administered through the Department of Technology and Society within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and are designed to help students from underserved communities to prepare for and succeed in college, particularly those who are pursuing professional licensure and careers in law, mathematics, science, technology and health-related fields.
The programs celebrated their 35-plus-year anniversaries with events on April 30 (CSTEP) and May 6 (STEP). Together, the events drew numerous alumni, current students, faculty, mentors and friends to celebrate and reflect upon this remarkable achievement.
The impact on students’ academic achievement and career opportunities has been significant. CSTEP students have a higher retention rate than non-CSTEP students and are more likely to graduate with STEM degrees. Similarly, STEP students are more likely to enroll in college and pursue STEM majors than their peers who did not participate in the program.
“What makes CSTEP unique is the community that we create for the students,” said Christine Veloso, co-director of STEP/CSTEP. “They are in these difficult courses, but they’re in those difficult courses together. We are constantly focusing on experiential learning opportunities for the students, and providing them with professional development workshops and networking opportunities.”
Veloso serves as co-director of the programs with Dorys Johnson, who began working with the STEP program in 1991.
The focus of STEP is to expose, engage, excite and encourage younger students to pursue college-level studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The program serves more than 350 local middle and high school students annually and provides programming year-round that exposes students to academic enrichment activities, such as hands-on lab experiences, field trips, and research projects as well as support services like tutoring, mentoring, and career counseling.
STEP students have the opportunity to attend summer institutes on campus, where they learn from faculty members and engage in STEM-related activities and research. STEP also offers after-school and weekend STEM classes and activities as well as SAT prep.
The CSTEP program aims to increase the number of underrepresented STEM students who graduate with degrees in scientific, technological, health, and health-related fields of study by empowering them with the skills, knowledge and networks necessary for success. It provides students with a variety of support services including academic advising, tutoring, mentoring, paid internships and research opportunities, and a pre-freshman summer residential program for credit and academic enrichment. The CSTEP program typically reaches over 400 Stony Brook undergraduate students per year.
Over 100 CSTEP alumni and current students attended the CSTEP event, which served as both a networking event as well as a celebration of the program. Alumni credited the program’s support for their success while at Stony Brook as well as post-graduation.
Among the alumni speakers were Nasir Stovall ’21, former STEP and CSTEP student currently at Harvard Medical School; and Josue Nassar ’16, MS ’18, and PhD ’22 in Electrical Engineering. Stovall was a part of the STEP program while a student at Longwood High School before joining CSTEP at Stony Brook, and credits the programs for encouraging his interest in science.
Nassar said CSTEP has provided tips that have helped him throughout his career. “Going into Stony Brook, I was the first one in my family to go to college so I had no one to mentor me, to help me, and CSTEP provided that.” Nassar is now a research scientist at Optum Labs and co-founder of the start-up RyvivyR.
“Thinking about what CSTEP means to me, the first thing that I thought about is a place to come and get food, a place to just hang out,” Nassar said. “But I graduated with my PhD from Stony Brook and a lot of times when I walk into rooms, I don’t see people that look like me. Usually, I’m the only minority in a room. And it wasn’t until I CSTEP that I got to see other people who like me, doing majors like me, and doing things that I like to do and showing me that it can be done.”
Ana Mejia-Bautista ’18 is a CSTEP alumna currently completing a PhD in neuroscience at SUNY Downstate, and noted how the program impacted her success. “The biggest benefit to me was having a smaller community within the larger Stony Brook community,” she said. “Everyone who meets in the summer program remains friends and stays close to each other through the four years at Stony Brook, and CSTEP holds events year after year to foster those relationships.”
Andrew Garcia Almeida ’16 is a CSTEP alumnus and a Johns Hopkins research technology specialist working on tuberculosis pharmacology research, as well as the co-founder, CEO, and COO of a start-up called StudyFind. As an undergraduate, Almeida approached Veloso with the idea of providing translation services for patients at SB Home, a medical student-run, physician-supervised free clinic affiliated with the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. With Veloso’s encouragement and support, Almeida created a program that is still in existence today in which CSTEP students serve as interpreters for patients in the free clinic.
He credits Veloso and her encouragement of his ideas and initiatives. “Dr. Veloso really fostered an environment that allowed folks to pitch and execute novel ways of bringing different experiences to the student body, particularly the minority student body at Stony Brook University, particularly for students in CSTEP,” he said.
Almeida now works with CSTEP to provide fellowship opportunities in which students receive funding from CSTEP to learn software developer skills from his company, StudyFind, and then execute projects using those skills. Almeida received the CSTEP Alumni Award at the celebration.
“We like to say that CSTEP and the staff here are the home base for students in the program,” Veloso said. “We provide the support and the community to help them grow and we know once the students get to their senior year, they’re getting pulled in different directions. The idea is that we’re here for them and will help them find and achieve the opportunities that they need at Stony Brook and beyond.”
— Beth Squire