UArizona Program Named 'Example of Excelencia' in Recognition of Service to Latino Students in STEM

graduate celebrating

Excelencia in Education, a national organization focused on accelerating Latino student success in higher education, today announced four evidence-based programs across the U.S. – including one University of Arizona program – as winners of its 2020 Examples of Excelencia award.

The Examples of Excelencia program identifies efforts at the forefront of implementing strategies advancing equity for Latino students.

The winning UArizona program, Arizona's Science, Engineering and Math Scholars, provides services to support students in graduating with a STEM degree, focusing on students who are underrepresented in STEM, such as first-generation college students, students from low-income households, those who transferred from community colleges, and students from underrepresented groups, including ethnic minorities and students with disabilities.

Seal of Excelencia

In 2019, UArizona was among nine higher education institutions to receive the inaugural Seal of Excelencia, aimed at recognizing institutions that demonstrate intentional impact and success in the three core areas of work that Excelencia has determined lead to Latino student success: data, practice and leadership.

ASEMS began as a grassroots effort among a small group of faculty and staff in 2011 with 12 students. It now supports more than 400 students across the university's STEM majors.

"ASEMS is a perfect example of what being a Hispanic-Serving Institution is all about. It's about affirming students for who they are and where they come from and surrounding them with holistic support that enables them to thrive," said Marla Franco, assistant vice provost for Hispanic-Serving Institution initiatives.

"The benefits of a program like ASEMS are quite far-reaching at the university," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation. "ASEMS has been an incredible resource for our researchers, who so often partner with the program when recruiting students for research experience in the lab and field."

In August, Excelencia in Education selected 20 finalists from more than 100 submissions across four categories – associate, baccalaureate, graduate, and community-based organizations – and presented them to a national selection committee composed of higher education leaders, grant-makers and stakeholders. The committee assessed the strength of innovative, intentional, culturally relevant and effective high-impact practices tailored to Latino students and their communities to select the four 2020 Examples of Excelencia. ASEMS has been selected as the winner in the baccalaureate category.

"As a land-grant university and a Hispanic-Serving Institution, the University of Arizona has a strong commitment to doing everything we can to support the success of Latinx and Hispanic students," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Bringing more students from underrepresented backgrounds into STEM disciplines, and into the workforce, is critically important in the future prosperity of the state of Arizona. Excelencia in Education is an incredible organization, and we are very proud to have this recognition."

This year's four Examples of Excelencia will be recognized at the annual Celebración de Excelencia, which will be held virtually.

The ASEMS program is also benefiting from two National Science Foundation grants awarded to the university, one of which provides financial scholarships and academic support to students from low-income households transferring from community colleges to UArizona to major in STEM disciplines and one that willl provide scholarships to 94 students who begin at fellow Hispanic-Serving Institution Pima Community College, where they will pursue associate of science degrees with the intention to transfer and complete bachelor of science STEM degrees at the UArizona.

"The ASEMS team and I are grateful for the national recognition of how creating a welcoming and inclusive environment in STEM supports increased persistence and graduation of Latinx students," said Kimberly Sierra-Cajas, ASEMS board member and director of STEM Learning Center.

UArizona recently received a $264,000, four-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, in partnership with Diné College, to support the introduction of Diné College students to the ASEMS program support services as well as peer mentoring by Native American graduate students. Led by Karen Francis-Begay, the principal investigator and assistant vice provost for Native American initiatives, and Sierra-Cajas, co-PI, the program aims to increase the percentage of Native American students who transfer from Diné College to UArizona to receive degrees in science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics.

The university also recently received a $1.3 million, five-year U.S. Department of Education grant renewal, led by TRIO ASEMS Director Fatemma Soto-Herrera to support ASEMS students who are first generation, from low-income households, or who have disabilities with mentoring, tutoring and early exposure to research.

"We are hopeful that more STEM academic administrators embrace the importance of culturally responsive and strengths-based mentoring, provide greater access earlier to relevant STEM career experiences, and put in place structures that support the retention and success of all STEM students, where they are affirmed and recognized for their own unique talents, skills and capabilities," said Sierra-Cajas.

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