This year has been a time of personal pause and reflection, reaffirmation combined with indecisiveness. An undergraduate academic career coupled with plenty of extra-curricular activities and summer internships still left me with post-graduation doubts. Hence, entered AmeriCorps. I entered the CSU STEM VISTA program hoping to take the time to reflect on my varied interests, among them the sciences and education.
Leaving my own uncertainty behind, I have spent the past months figuring out how to best help Fresno State’s undergraduates gain more exposure to research and internships in hopes to give them career clarification… let the irony of the situation set in. While I have struggled to come upon my own career clarification, I am trying to ease the process for students through workshops and individual advising. While I am an obvious example of how participating in research and internships does not always lead to an aha moment—too many passions, too indecisive in this case—every experience I’ve had has brought me closer to knowing what I would enjoy in a career and what I would tire of.
This semester I have co-facilitated two workshops with co-VISTA Kyle, also known as half of K^2, and have two remaining. In these workshops, we present introductory information on service learning, undergraduate research, and internships. Part one, define the terms. Part two, explain their benefits. Part three, give beginning steps on how to get involved. One of the first audience-directed questions I ask is class standing, how many freshmen, sophomores, etc. are in the audience? Second, has anyone participated in either research or internships? While there is a mix of student classification, the general answer to whether they have participated in research or internships is no. Many of the students I’ve spoken to have little knowledge on how to get involved with research and internships. They’re unsure about how to approach a faculty member, where to get started, at what point in their academic career they should start getting involved, what the requirements are. Overall, plenty of uncertainty.
While Fresno State has a Career Services office that offers career guidance, there is no central hub where students can go to get information on how to get involved with undergraduate research. Nor does Career Services offer many STEM-specific services. Faculty members don’t openly nor actively advertise if they have undergraduate openings in their labs. Science opportunities advertised and recruited for at career fairs are outshone and outnumbered by advertising and business opportunities. Advising is often limited to academic advising, guaranteeing students are on track for graduating with their intended major.
There are programs on campus focused on student success during and post-college. Students within these programs—Smittcamp Family Honors College, the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program, or the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program to name a few—have access to a small cohort of fellow undergraduates, faculty mentors, and focused attention on supplemental academic and professional experiences. However, the number of slots for these programs are limited. My work as a VISTA has been housed within the College’s Advising and Resources Center, focused on providing academic and professional advising for all science and mathematics students. As VISTAs, we have begun to work on bridging the gap between resources offered by campus-wide organizations such as Career Services and the smaller, selective programs so that all science and mathematics students know where to go for general and specific questions on research and internships. These past months, I have contributed preliminary capacity-building actions. As a Center, we have begun to build relationships with faculty members, collected information on how students are currently involved with research, and created an extensive database of research and internship opportunities for students.
No prior establishment of an office focused on STEM research and internships means our work as VISTAs this year is just the beginning. A culture of undergraduate research and internships is not built overnight. But from conversations with students, they are eager to get more involved. Especially if that means gaining some career clarification and increasing their chances of landing that dream job after graduation. While I continue to pause and reflect on my own career trajectory, I’ll continue to figure out where and how mechanisms can be created so that more undergraduates are enthusiastically exposed to opportunities in a timely manner. Fingers crossed, these opportunities hand out a few of those aha moments of clarification we all would love in our academic careers.