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by Kendall Powell
Juan Magana traveled only 100 miles from his hometown of Salinas, California, to attend college at the University of California, Berkeley. But it might as well have been to another planet. Salinas, an agricultural town and birthplace of writer John Steinbeck, has recently become well-known for its Latino street-gang activity and the closing of its public libraries. Graduating 25th in his class, Magana was one of just a handful of students from his high school to go to college. But when he bombed his first calculus exam, Magana realized he was not as prepared as most other Berkeley students.
Luckily, at orientation he had received an invitation to join the Biology
Scholars Program (BSP), an HHMI-supported program that offers academic support
and a sense of community to struggling life-science majors at
Berkeley—many of whom are underrepresented minorities (African American,
Latino, or Native American) or from underprivileged backgrounds. Now a
fourth-year public health major, Magana excels in his courses and tutors
freshmen BSP students in chemistry.
His success story was but one of those presented in the Symposia on Diversity in
the Sciences, a series of meetings where college and university faculty,
students, and administrators share the challenges and results of campus programs
aiming to recruit and ret ain underrepresented minorities majoring in science,
math, and engineering. These HHMI-sponsored symposia, which began in 2005, have
taken place at Harvard University, the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and,
most recently (October 27 and 28, 2006), the University of Washington, Seattle.
A fourth and final session at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland,
planned for early 2008, will rap up the series.
Underrepresented minority and disadvantaged students enter college with the same
level of interest in science as do other students, say symposia organizers. Yet,
only a small percentage of minority students graduate with a science degree. For
example, African American students represent 11 percent of all U. S. college
students, but earn only 6.9 percent of the bachelor's degrees in the sciences
and less than 2 percent of the science and engineering doctorates awarded.
"We have been losing them in our own house," says Michael F. Summers, a chemist
and HHMI investigator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
But a program on his own campus—the Meyerhoff Scholars Program—is
making a difference, as shown by the data Summers has presented at each
symposium. Not only has the Meyerhoff program increased the performance and
retention rates of participating African American students, it has also led to
dramatic increases in enrollment and retention of the African American science
students not in the program. Summers explains that, by raising the achievement
levels of minority students in science, program has slowly changed faculty
attitudes. "Now, the expectations are higher."
Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal