Written by Natalie Hambalek, CSU STEM VISTA 2016-17
This time last year I was getting ready to embark on my third year into my PhD program at Oregon State University. Needless to say, over the last year my plans and goals have morphed into ones that I will enjoy living and accomplishing. After 6-weeks into my year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA, I can say with relief and conviction that this is the work I am supposed to be doing.
My path through higher education, like many other students, was filled with hurdles, pitfalls, and closed doors. There was always the expectation to go to college, but as a first-generation college student and a daughter of immigrants, my family did not have the knowledge capacity or financial resources to help me navigate that expectation. Luckily, being a student and learning was what I did best; school and science formed the concrete that kept me grounded in my personal life. I was determined, and saw education as a clear path to achieving success. Through a combination of opportunity, mentorship, and motivation, I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology at Sonoma State University and then went on to obtain my Masters in Zoology from Oregon State.
Poverty and science were the threads that weaved together my personal and professional lives. It was not until later on when I learned about their intersection. While my meager graduate school stipend made me the richest I’ve ever been in my life (no joke), my immersion in the “Ivory Tower” quickly made me realize that there is a lack of diversity in STEM. This is bad news for many reasons, but a primary one is that unique backgrounds can lead to different approaches to framing and solving problems. As the world’s problem solvers, STEM fields need distinctive perspectives to be successful. From my personal experiences, readings, and conversations with other students, I found the culture of academia at many institutions does not always foster low-income, first-generation, or minority student success. The refuge from my frustration and the hustle and bustle of research became conducting outreach with kids of different backgrounds to get them exposed to different facets of science and learning about the role of science in public policy. The combination of my ambivalence in my program and urgency to make a difference is ultimately why I left graduate school to pursue my year of service with the CSU STEM VISTA program.
AND I AM SO GLAD I DID!!
I currently serve as the Coordinator for the Sciences Internship Program (SIP) for the School of Natural Sciences at CSU, Monterey Bay (CSUMB). CSUMB is composed of 55% first generation college students, 46% underrepresented minority students, and 35% low-income students. The goal of SIP is to promote academic and professional success, primarily for those from traditionally underrepresented groups. We aim to accomplish this by curating internships, providing a professional development for science majors course, and expanding and sustaining a variety of community partnerships to increase opportunities for our students.
Internships help students take the hard skills and theories they are learning in the classroom and apply them to the real-world. As the internship coordinator, I am conscious that student have barriers that may prevent them from participating in internships. Many students must work full- or part-time to support themselves or others dependent on them. Others may not have the time to commit to an internship because they must care for their loved ones when they are not in class. Thus, there is plenty of contention surrounding unpaid internships. While practical experience makes students desireable post-graduation, having to work for free may compromise a student’s ability to participate in an internship, and they may opt for a job completely unrelated to their field instead. This is why we try to help create and advertise as many paid internships as possible.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Opportunities are seemingly heavily dependent on the network you are tapped into; family friends, coaches, teachers, community members, supervisors, the list is endless. However, many (but not all!) students who come from low-income, first generation, and underrepresented minority backgrounds can lack the social capital needed to get ahead in the workplace and beyond. As a student, I was constantly pondering, “how do I compete with a student that has already been so well acquainted with the logistics of graduate school, peer reviewed research, and key-players in their field?” Opportunities like the McNair Scholar Program and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation certainly helped me level the playing field.
With such a high percentage of first-generation college students in particular, CSUMB students must work to increase their professional networks. Internships not only provide students with real-world hands on experience, but they also help students expand their networks to include those who have jobs at organizations they may work for in the future. I am eager to continue to grow the reach of the Sciences Internship Program and build the infrastructure that will help sustain the program for the benefit of students for years to come.