As a middle school student in Plainfield, Jamin Brako knew he wanted to explore STEM in college.
But no one in his family had attended college before, and many of his peers prioritized athletics over academics, so Brako didn’t have the roadmap to get there.
Then he was selected to participate in the Rutgers Upward Bound Math-Science program in 2017 – which is designed to motivate first-generation college students or students from under-resourced families to graduate high school and prepare for college – and a new world opened up to him. This fall, Brako, 18, is a first-year engineering student on a full ride at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
“I’m very grateful for Upward Bound. It was good for me to see the opportunities outside of Plainfield and being able to communicate and network with fellow scholars and people in the field was valuable to me,” said Brako, who credits the program with continuing to groom him academically, socially and emotionally for the rigors of college throughout COVID-19. “When we weren’t as motivated during the pandemic, they were always reaching out to us and invited us to campus to give us supplies for Summer Academy.”
To stay connected with their students, the Upward Bound team hosted virtual check-in sessions and workshops, dropped off items to students’ home mailboxes and met up with students outside of Lucy Stone Hall and in their communities for technology requests and supply distributions. All outdoor activities followed COVID-19 protocols, adhering to social distancing and mask requirements.
COVID-19 may have disrupted university life, but it did not disconnect the Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement’s (DICE) Educational Equity programs from the students they are charged to serve. Identified as federally funded TRiO programs, Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science, Thrive Student Support Services, and the McNair Scholars Program represent a few of the student success programs that form the Educational Equity group, which promotes the success of historically underserved students on the New Brunswick campus.
“Our Educational Equity programs intentionally support students who identify as first-generation; people with disabilities; Black; Latinx; Indigenous or people who come from under-resourced communities across the many stages of their academic careers,” said Melissa Wooten, associate vice president of Academic Equity for DICE at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “It was incredibly important that we found innovative ways to remain engaged and assist these students as they set and reached their academic goals, while navigating the unique circumstances of this global experience.”
As the university moved instruction online to weather a pandemic that altered the way it engaged with students, the Educational Equity programs also quickly pivoted to meet the changing needs of their scholars.
Though virtual meetings and events presented a new set of challenges, the Educational Equity programs found success by embracing the digital platforms that helped them consistently provide resources and opportunities to their students, albeit exclusively online.
In February, the program directors helped plan and host Access Week 2021, a week-long series of informative events that championed educational equity and helped unlock pathways for student achievement at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
Thrive Student Support Services continued to offer programming that aligned with the group’s mission of empowering undergraduate students to persist through college, maintain good academic standing, and graduate on time. It hosted a variety of virtual workshops for students, including the Student Success Conference, in collaboration with the office of Career Exploration and Success, and the graduate and professional school series Ready for the Next Step, in which academic coaches provided resources on how to apply to graduate and professional school.
Were it not for programs like those, former McNair Scholar alumna Ashley Crawley, 22, said she would likely have abandoned her plans to pursue graduate school after leaving her pre-med program. After graduating in May with a major in psychology and a double minor in Latin and statistics, Crawley is now at UCLA studying for a doctoral degree in neuropsychology.
“I was still interested in learning about the brain, and I knew I wanted to go to grad school, but I thought that it was only to obtain a medical or law degree,” said the Teaneck resident.
But after being paired with a neurology faculty member during her junior year at Rutgers-New Brunswick, Crawley said her eyes were opened to the possibilities – and the many hurdles she needed to get over before her dreams would become a reality.
“I genuinely didn’t know there was a GRE exam or that the PhD program existed – anything you want to do, anything you have a passion for you can get a degree in,” she said. “Through McNair, they were great at tailoring our interests to a program.”
Last fall, when Crawley found herself losing motivation at the exact moment she needed to ramp it up for the graduate school application process, outreach from her McNair support systems helped her rally.
“We were losing momentum, and even though we were online, the graduate mentors were really on our backs to make sure we were ahead of the deadline,” she said. “They’d say, ‘How are your essays going?' And we’d say, ‘We’re working on it,' and they said, ‘That’s not good enough, get it done.’”
Similarly, virtual meet ups, advisor check-ins, GRE preps and the Summer Institute through McNair helped Crawley and her peers feel connected.
“They always had our best interest in mind even during COVID, which was super helpful,” she said.