Written by Jeffrey Cabanez, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-2015
When you hear the word PEEPS, what comes to mind? Probably five yellow marshmallows shaped as tiny chickens, or five pink marshmallows shaped as tiny bunnies, placed in a box wrapped in plastic. You know, the candy that everyone likes for two months out of the year but is irrelevant for the other ten. When I hear the word PEEPS, I think academic learning communities, professional development opportunities, block scheduling, and financial aid.
At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I am working with a brand new scholarship program called the Program for Engineering Excellence for Partner Schools, cleverly shortened to PEEPS. PEEPS aims to recruit, retain, and graduate engineering students from underrepresented backgrounds. To recruit students to apply for our scholarship program, we worked with Admissions and Financial Aid to see what target group would benefit the most. We decided that Cal Poly Partner Schools would be the students we recruit from. A Cal Poly Partner High School is a high school that meets one or more of the following criteria:
- The school is part of the College Preparation Partnership Program introduced by Senator Hayden.
- The school supports First Generation student’s efforts to attend college.
- The school primarily serves students eligible for free or reduced school lunch.
One long-term goal PEEPS has is to create a more diverse STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) workforce. By nature of the Partner School agreement, these high schools tend to be more diverse and of lower socio-economic status. Many of the students who attend Partner Schools are First Generation as well. Since this is our pilot year with PEEPS, mechanical engineering students are the target major, but next year’s cohort will be open to all engineering majors who have financial need and come from a Cal Poly Partner School.
For the next six years, we want to determine what best practices help students succeed at the university level. PEEPS is unique because we take a holistic approach to supporting students. PEEPS students form a learning community to support one another and take engineering support courses together.
One of the biggest factors as to why students do not come to college is money; they either cannot afford it or what financial aid they do receive is not enough. We provide our six students with up to $10,000 per year for 4-5 years. Aside from scholarship, PEEPS utilizes a cohort-based learning model, or an academic learning community. What I mean by this is that our six students will take classes together for the first two years; this allows the students to study, learn, and support one another. If one student is struggling with a Math class, they can ask their PEEP for assistance. Along with classes, I, as the CSU STEM VISTA member, give the students an opportunity to meet with me on an individual basis to check in with their experiences so far, as well as monthly socials where they can all hang out with one another outside of class. Looking forward, I hope to provide the students with STEM outreach activities, personalized tutoring, and professional development. As you can see, PEEPS centralizes the resources for students and fosters an environment to work through their problems together.
I have learned so much through my first four months as the PEEPS coordinator, from creating fliers and course development to basic concepts involved with electronic textiles and liquid nitrogen ice cream. But the most important takeaway is that support is vital for students to be successful in college. Scholarship and monetary support is helpful to the students, but providing the resources and environment for collaboration among students is how they can actually be successful. I’ll be the first to admit I had a fixed mindset while attending Cal Poly; I thought that my knowledge was based only on my own abilities, that I could not change that, and most importantly, I never reached out to my peers for help. I fell into the trap of believing that I was not smart enough to pursue engineering fully, which is why I changed my major to encompass only half of engineering (Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies).
I mention this because it motivates and reminds me why I am serving and whom I am serving. The notions of “I’m not good at math” or “engineering isn’t for me” are limited only by the mindset you have. Seeing that my students actually have a growth mindset and want to take challenging problems head-on allows me to see the impact of having a support group can have on an individual. They are not afraid to fail because they know they still have one another’s support.
Through serving at Cal Poly, I have noticed that there are many different opportunities for students to obtain resources so they can succeed not only in engineering but at the university level. Although each organization on campus may have a different way of helping students, and there may seem to be a lot of overlap in between, one thing remains true: everyone on this campus is here to engage the students and help them in their college career. As each organization on our campus helps students, I could not have done any of this work without Dr. Kathy Chen from the Materials Engineering Department, Jackie Duerr from the Multicultural Engineering Program, and my fellow VISTA cohort.
So after reading my somewhat long blog post, I have three takeaways for you. First, the people around you can truly shape how you work, how you learn, and how you can inspire others. Second, support is never too far away at any given time. And finally, you may never look at PEEPS the same way with out thinking about anything I have just mentioned. And for that I am sorry!