For computer engineering and computer science students in the Las Vegas Scholars Program, the first stressful week of classes concluded with an informal get-together — a check-in of sorts to see how everyone was faring, to recap their summer activities, and to meet again in-person, face-to-face after a year plus of mostly remote learning.
“Several of us planned a trip to Los Angeles over summer,” shared Datino Dixon, first-year cohort and computer engineering junior. “We knew we got along as students together in the program, but we wanted to know how it would be if we traveled together. If it went well, we could plan more trips with the group.”
Building friendships and a sense of community is an integral part of this five-year, National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-funded program, explains Sarah Harris, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and head of the program.
“We wanted to broaden participation in STEM careers by supporting talented students with demonstrated financial need,” she said. “These are students who may not have been able to otherwise afford college or pursue majors in computer engineering or computer science. That support includes more than just assisting financially with a scholarships, it means providing a sense of community, resources, and a supportive network of people who care about their success.”
Included in that network are families. “Helping families understand the time commitment of education, especially for first generation college students, is so important,” said Harris.
The role of the family in student success is often overlooked, said Norma A. Marrun, assistant director of the college’s Center for Multicultural Education and co-principal investigator for the grant program. Her research focuses on Latina/o/x education, family engagement, and educational equity and access to higher education for students of color.
“It was important that we include a family component into the program. Family can facilitate students’ transition from high school to college, so we created opportunities for family members to feel included in the Las Vegas Scholars Program. We also made sure that our scholars felt included in the definition of ‘family’ by allowing them to define family as any member that has been supportive of their educational journeys — a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a cousin or a friend.”
Family members who joined the cohort orientations were surprised they were asked not just to be present, but to participate in activities. “It was a way for us to show them they matter, to us, and to their children’s academic success,” said Marrun.
On this particular Friday, the majority of the Las Vegas Scholars were able to come together and reconnect. The program started in 2019 with an inaugural nine students and added nine more in fall 2020.
Connecting the two cohorts was an important aspect of the experience. Kyla Sannadan, a member of the first cohort and a computer science senior, said she’s connected with people that otherwise she may not have and she’s especially proud to no being able to help out the students who came after her.
“I remember what it was like for me pursuing my Ph.D. I didn’t know anyone who had completed a Ph.D., but I had friends who were in the know and that was incredibly helpful,” said Harris. “We want to provide that inside knowledge and sense of belonging to our Las Vegas Scholars. All of our students are dealing with financial stresses, but may also have familial commitments and other stressors that make higher education even that much more challenging. We want to make sure they have resources and connections to help them graduate and attain their educational and professional goals. We also want to develop a model for strengthening other STEM programs within UNLV and at other universities.”
For computer engineering junior Robert Lonasco, being in the program meant he has been more motivated and has struggled less. “It is nice to have a support group of your peers, with the same aspirations and goals.”
Britney Dang, a computer science sophomore, echoes Robert’s remarks. “Without(Las Vegas Scholars Program) I’d be very lost. Now being on campus, I feel I know a little more and I have people I can ask for advice on classes.”
Las Vegas Scholars receive a scholarship, participate in an academic Summer Bridge Program, engage in mentoring and research opportunities, and attend various social activities together. They even have a physical space in one of the engineering buildings set aside for their use, and they often connect and communicate through a Discord channel.
When asked what they feel is the most important aspect of the program, the refrain from everyone was the connections they’ve developed, both with faculty mentors and each other.
“It’s really great to have students you can share your struggles with, people you know who have your back,” said Billy Zielinski.
Not surprisingly, that summer trip to Los Angeles went very well, and the Las Vegas Scholars will definitely be planning more trips together in the future.