NSF-Funded STEM Scholarship Launches First-Gen College Students into Promising Careers

Graduates with degrees in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are in high demand. But low-income, first-generation college students often face barriers as they work to complete their degrees in these areas.

“Over the past decade or so, witnessing students encounter challenges due to financial difficulties before or after graduation has been very troubling,” said Louise Ko Huang, PhD, assistant dean of Azusa Pacific University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Such burdens often hinders and delays these graduates from pursuing God’s calling upon their lives.”

To address this challenge, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded APU a $650,000 S-STEM grant to bolster its student community. This STEM scholarship program will help recruit and retain high-achieving, low-income, first-generation students. Through the support of the program, these students will graduate from APU prepared to pursue their dreams of becoming computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, and professionals in STEM fields.

“The scholarships will allow students to focus on their academic studies within the rigorous curriculum,” said James Hsi-Jen Yeh, PhD, principal investigator for the initiative and an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Computer Science. In addition to much-needed financial assistance, the STEM scholarship supports students in other ways as well.

Huang added that simply alleviating the financial burden wouldn’t guarantee student success, so more needs to be done. “This has to be coupled with academic, professional, social, and family support to ensure our students—especially underrepresented or first-generation students who may have unique challenges—will thrive during their studies at APU,” she said.

The grant is the result of a three-year process led by APU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty, including Huang and Yeh, as well as Bradley “Peanut” McCoy, PhD, co-investigator and chair and professor in the Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics; Christopher B. Newman, PhD, educational researcher and associate professor in the Department of Higher Education; and Tedd Szeto, PhD, former STEM administrator and associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics. Working together, they created the STEM scholarship program to support students in the following ways.

STEM Scholarships Will Support 56 Students

This NSF S-STEM grant funds 56 scholarships, ranging from $6,000 to $9,000 per APU student over the next five years. The scholarships will be awarded to students in six STEM-related majors within the Department of Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics.

“Our strategic plan, Renewal, calls for us to be an institution of increased equity and inclusion,” said Rukshan Fernando, PhD, APU’s provost. “At the same time, the growing demand in the STEM fields necessitates the equipping of diverse undergraduates. The awarding of this grant cannot be more timely.”

Academic Support Will Help Ensure Student Success

In addition, the grant provides access to expert guidance from nationally recognized consultants, who can help provide faculty and peer mentoring, supplemental instruction, and tutoring. This support will aid in students’ academic success, build their confidence, and cultivate a sense of belonging, all of which can help them stay in school.

“With the additional support services including peer mentoring and research participation, we aim to attract and retain underrepresented students in the STEM fields and prepare highly skilled graduates for the future,” Yeh said.

Families Will Gain Encouraging Resources

Along with guidance and financial support, APU will provide students’ families with tools and encouragement—so they can play a role in helping their students succeed. Family workshops will take place each semester and families will receive materials and learn approaches to address concerns such as academic performance and vocational development.

Especially for first-generation students, this can be extremely valuable. “Family support could be key to degree completion for these underrepresented students,” Huang said.

Students Will Graduate Ready for Advanced Study and Careers

The benefits and offerings don’t stop there. Students will also have opportunities to participate in internships and summer research with faculty mentors, which can help prepare them for graduate-level study and for careers. Additionally, each student will have access to a STEM-focused success coach to give career guidance.

“Comprehensive training such as internships and shadowing opportunities can effectively integrate student and program learning outcomes with technical skills and post-graduation work readiness,” Huang noted.

With their APU degrees in hand, these students will be well-prepared for in-demand STEM careers in industries such as aviation, aerospace, defense, communications, semiconductors, new media services, and entertainment. In fact, Huang explained that many of APU’s STEM graduates have built successful careers at leading companies and institutions both in the Southern California area and beyond, such as Raytheon, JPL, IBM, and Google.

Are you ready to launch your future in a burgeoning STEM field? To learn more about degrees in STEM-related fields at Azusa Pacific University, connect with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.