Millennium Scholars Program connects diversity and STEM degrees

August 31, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- They looked exactly like the other underclassmen trudging up the stairs to the dining commons at Pollock Halls. They dressed and spoke alike, and until their group reached a set of doors, they acted alike, too.

Male members of a cohort of Penn State Millennium Scholars are required to hold doors open for their female counterparts, and can’t enter or exit until all of the women have crossed the threshold.

The resulting mob caused somewhat of a traffic jam on either side of the doors as the men fell back, but it was quickly resolved as the group counted to make sure everyone was present and moved off again.

Based on the Meyerhoff program run through the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), the Millennium Scholars Program is in its third year of training a diverse group of students to succeed in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Each summer, a select group of incoming freshmen focused on attaining an advanced degree in a STEM field participate in the Millennium Scholars Summer Bridge Program: six weeks of rigorous academic training to transition students into life as a college student. Each of the six weeks focuses on a certain theme that the scholars hope to exemplify: accountability, cohesiveness, character, vision, respect, academic excellence and resilience.

Millennium Scholars, at least during their summer bridge program, must walk together as a unit and without spaces between members of the group. They must never leave anyone behind.

This meant a lot of speed walking and hissing, “gap, gap!” as the 25 incoming freshmen made their way up to the Forum Building. Along the way, they were careful to observe other rules: no stepping on the grass, no using cell phones or headphones, etc. Infractions have consequences, the scholars explained.

By 7:53 a.m., a full seven minutes before they were required to be there, the members of what will be the third cohort of Penn State Millennium Scholars filed into 102 Forum for their first chemistry lecture of the morning.

Despite their status as scholars, the students spread through the first three rows of the Forum lecture hall like many have before them, debating the proper name for the act of flipping a backpack inside out. Snacks and water bottles were passed around, coffee and energy drinks were swigged, and yawns were stifled behind hands.

“Did you get a lot of sleep last night?” Professor of Chemistry Philip Bevilacqua joked.

“NO!” came the chorus.

During their summer bridge program, scholars have math study hall until 10:30 p.m. and then go do their English homework, one explained. That, in conjunction with the 6:45 a.m. breakfast call, means that the scholars average between four and five hours of sleep a night.

“You’re probably wondering why we do this,” scholar Alexander Sinconegui stated frankly, having explained the program’s many rules and the lack of sleep. “Most people do.”

A spot in this new program is not necessarily a full-ride scholarship, and there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but it’s a family, Sinconegui said, complete with dysfunction and compromise.

“We’re learning a way of life, creating all these experiences and getting all these opportunities,” scholar Olivia Richards said. “The whole point of this is to create a reliance so that we can turn to each other for help.”

“We’ve created a base,” scholar Sarea Recalde-Phillips said. “It’s support on an emotional level for when we enter freshman year and beyond.”

Four weeks into the six-week summer bridge, the camaraderie between the Millennium Scholars is evident. During the workshop with Bevilacqua and his graduate students, the scholars were fully engaged, shouting out answers and asking questions, and if someone began to nod off, they were quickly shaken awake before the professor noticed. Fist bumps and high fives were traded when difficult questions were answered correctly, and there were giggles when someone mentioned an inside joke.

In addition to attending academically rigorous courses in chemistry, English, and math, the scholars are kept busy during the summer. They learn about decorum -- how to properly shake hands and how to give an elevator pitch -- and visit famous scientific facilities like Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re only in our third year, and we’re already building our reputation,” said program director Starlette Sharp. Along with the reputation, Sharp has been crucial to building the program, shepherding it from its early days in 2013 to the present. She spoke proudly of the program’s growth, of how Penn State is one of just three schools with such a program dedicated to increasing diversity in STEM using this methodology.

“I think that every student should be able to be successful in STEM, and we need to make these fields of study as accessible as possible,” Sharp said. “The Millennium Scholars Program has a lot of potential for a big impact.”

UMBC’s program has graduated more than 880 students in the last 25 years, nearly 90 percent of whom have attended graduate school. The national average graduation rate in science is less than 50 percent. It is the goal of the Penn State Millennium Scholars Program to match these numbers.

Vice Provost for Educational Equity Marcus Whitehurst agreed that the program has “outstanding potential.”

“Our goal is to be a leader in higher education across the nation in producing STEM graduates, and I believe that if we continue to build support and structure around what we have and make a strong commitment to the future, we can have the best program in the nation,” he said.

Whitehurst is part of the Committee on Inclusive Penn State, formed by President Eric Barron to provide recommendations on expanding the Millennium Scholars Program. Currently, the program funnels students into the Eberly College of Science and the College of Engineering, and the goal is to add the colleges of Information Sciences and Technology; Earth and Mineral Sciences; and Agricultural Sciences. Among the 25 Millennium Scholars in the new cohort, 18 have joined the Eberly College of Science and seven have gone into the College of Engineering.

Amr Elnashai, dean of the College of Engineering, and Douglas Cavener, dean of the Eberly College of Science, are in favor of expanding the program to include the other STEM colleges.

“My belief in nurturing an inclusive community at Penn State is based on my conviction that diverse communities are much richer and much more creative than non-diverse ones,” said Elnashai. “The opportunity to expand the program is tremendous, provided we make the required resources available.”

Cavener said the remarkable success of UMBC’s program is largely due to the cohort bonding that occurs during the summer bridge, which is why so much emphasis has been placed on the summer bridge at Penn State.

“The Millennium Scholars all have impressive credentials coming into the program, but talking to them after the summer bridge, I am struck by how a group of special individual students are transformed into an extraordinary team that works together to promote each others' success,” Cavener said.

“It’s a powerful experience,” William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences said. He added that STEM degrees are as tedious, demanding and frustrating as they are exciting and rewarding, and that the summer bridge exposes students to some of the realities they will face in their STEM programs.

Elnashai and the rest of the committee hope to present their recommendations this fall.

Last Updated August 31, 2015