Increasing URM Confidence Through Mentored Applications to Co-Curricular Experiences

AMANDA E. WONG (amandaew@hawaii.edu) is an education research and learning assistant and MICHAEL GUIDRY (guidry@hawaii.edu) is the undergraduate chair of the Global Environmental Science Program in the Department of Oceanography, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, Honolulu, HI.

Students from diverse backgrounds can facilitate the growth of the geoscience community by providing different perspectives and innovative approaches to new challenges on our rapidly changing planet (Huntoon and Lane, 2007). Such students continue to be underrepresented in the geosciences, however. This is unfortunate, because underrepresented minority (URM) students highly value their contributions to society and the environment (Sherman-Morris et al. 2016).

Co-curricular research and internship opportunities, like undergraduate research experiences, are enriching opportunities that strengthen the overall education experience for all undergraduate students in STEM (Lopatto, 2007). Research experiences provide students with higher clarity in their interests in research and STEM careers, increased understanding of a research project, and increased confidence in their research skills (Russel et al., 2007). These kinds of experiences are especially important for URM students, who gain and learn more from these opportunities compared to nonminority students (Lopatto, 2007).

One way to retain URM students and improve their learning outcomes is to build student confidence. That is one of the primary aims of the Global Environmental Science (GES) undergraduate degree program in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. The majority of the students are from URM groups in the geosciences in terms of gender and/or ethnicity — females, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Hispanic Americans. Many GES students are also transfer students from local community colleges in the University of Hawai'i system or mainland community colleges and universities. The rigorous yet personalized GES curriculum prepares them to apply their knowledge and skills from courses and labs towards their degree-required, faculty-mentored thesis experience. In addition to the thesis, the GES program encourages students to pursue co-curricular research and internship opportunities, which are especially important for recruiting and retaining URM in STEM (Hathaway et al. 2002).

The GES program strives to increase student confidence through the degree-required thesis experience, peer mentoring, and co-curricular near-peer mentoring. The thesis experience promotes the development of student confidence in research skills and communication through the research project's written component and oral presentation on a research topic of their interest. Student confidence is further built in two optional GES mentoring programs with the idea that experienced geoscience students, who look like and share similar backgrounds with URM students, are important role models and leaders for URM students (Huntoon and Lane 2007). The GES Peers are advanced students, who provide academic advising and mentoring on the GES curriculum to incoming and rising students. The GES Opportunities Program (GES-OP) provides near-peer mentoring support for students in preparing a wide range of application materials for cocurricular research opportunities and internships, where recent graduates of the GES program mentor and assist current GES students. By being exposed to leadership that looks like them, URM students can more effectively identify themselves in the geoscience community. In this article, we describe our GES-OP to support students, especially URM students, through near-peer mentoring and co-curricular application assistance and highlight student outcomes and feedback.

In January of 2020, we launched the GES-OP at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa to more effectively support GES students through one-on-one, near-peer mentorship, and assistance with their application process for co-curricular opportunities.

Personalized mentorship is the key component of our program's approach, and recent graduates of the GES undergraduate program were selected as near-peer mentors for the GES-OP. Each of the mentors was a high achieving and accomplished GES student, who came from a unique background with diverse interests in environmental science. The mentors participated in multiple co-curricular STEM opportunities as GES students, including research experiences, oceanography research cruises, fellowships, national conferences, and undergraduate research projects. Since the mentors had applied to and experienced many co-curricular opportunities as GES students, they were equipped with recent first-hand experience to effectively mentor and assist current students through their application process for co-curricular opportunities.

The GES-OP was organized into two efforts that focused on assisting GES student participants in (1) searching out and applying for co-curricular opportunities and (2) applying for undergraduate research project funding. Self-identified students were the ideal student population for the efforts that focused on applying for co-curricular opportunities. Advanced students, who were ready to start their GES thesis, were the target population for assistance with their research project proposals for funding from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.

Participants met in person, one-on-one, with their near-peer mentors for assistance with their application materials, including CVs, personal statements, and research funding proposals. The mentors reviewed their materials and provided constructive feedback and suggestions to make improvements, such as rearranging content for a better organization, highlighting specific topics to emphasize a key part of their story, and adding more details to better capture their story as a STEM student and as a person.

Confidence building was another important component of the GES-OP. The one-on-one, near-peer mentoring approach promoted the development of students' confidence in their own abilities to prepare their applications. The leadership roles of the mentors provided visible representation of relatable individuals, which served to further boost student confidence in themselves, especially for URM students. This near-peer mentoring approach using recent GES graduates attempted to inspire participants with the idea that "if they can do it, I can do it too." As a part of this program, participants were initially assessed on their confidence in preparing application materials, then given a follow-up confidence assessment with qualitative program feedback afterwards. This assessment allowed the GES-OP to quantify the impact of their experience through changes in the students' confidence in their ability to prepare their own application materials.

Student Interest and Participation

To gauge the level of student interest in applying for summer research and internships, a survey was emailed to all current GES students at the beginning of January 2020. Approximately a quarter (n=23) of the student population responded to the survey, and the majority of the student respondents (n=14) had junior or senior academic standing. All of the respondents indicated that they were interested in a summer internship, and the majority (n=21) were also interested in a summer research experience. Multiple respondents indicated an interest in sustainability (n=19), followed by marine sciences and oceanography (n=15), marine biology (n=11), hydrology (n=9), ecology (n=8), and geology and Earth sciences (n=7). The survey results indicated that many GES students were interested in participating in co-curricular research and internship opportunities, especially in sustainability and the geosciences.

Based on the high level of GES student interest in co-curricular opportunities, we compiled a list of research, internship, and conference opportunities and emailed it to all GES students. This list was sent in January of 2020, as the application season for summer co-curricular opportunities was already in progress. The list was curated with website links to point students in the direction of co-curricular opportunities that the near-peer mentors and previous GES students participated in, opportunities which included local and national research experiences and internships. Several of the program participants expressed appreciation for the compiled list, and one student indicated that "there were internships I saw that I would have never seen when searching for them myself."

The curated list of co-curricular opportunities was a great starting point, and several program participants went on to apply for the research and internship opportunities with the help of a near-peer mentor. Students worked with their mentor through several drafts of CVs and personal statements before submitting their applications. A total of eight students participated in the application assistance portion of the program. The majority of the participants (n=6) applied to NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates, NOAA Hollings Fellowships, Sea Grant internships, lab positions, and other summer internships. The other two participants applied for undergraduate research project funding for their GES thesis projects. All but one participant (n=7) are female and the majority of the participants (n=6) are underrepresented ethnic minorities in the geosciences. Seven were current students and one is a recent GES graduate. Interestingly, the majority of the participants (n=6) were transfer students from local community colleges in Hawai'i or other institutions across the nation. The majority of the program participants (n=6) had responded to the survey of interest in summer research and internship opportunities, and many students were interested in marine sciences and oceanography (n=5) and sustainability (n=5). The background and interests of the participants illustrate the diversity of these students, who we wanted to support through this program (Table 1).

Student Confidence and Feedback

Out of the eight program participants, one student received CV assistance for her application to a research position. She was a transfer student, who initially indicated low confidence (rated 2 out of 5) in her ability to prepare a CV, which increased to somewhat confidence (rated 4 out of 5) after working with her mentor. She expressed appreciation for the mentorship and CV assistance she received from her GES near-peer mentor, as illustrated by this statement: "I got a lot out of my one on one sessions with Amanda and now have a CV that I can send out to potential employers. She guided me through the process of emailing professors and how to begin networking. UH Mānoa is a very big school and can be hard to navigate and I really appreciate advice especially from someone who was in SOEST."

Two out of five participants were surveyed on their initial confidence in preparing their essay statements for summer internships and scholarships that had rapidly approaching submission deadlines. These two participants initially indicated that they had neutral confidence (rated 3 out of 5) in their ability to respond to essay questions and/or write a personal statement, which rose to somewhat confidence (rate 4 out of 5) after receiving assistance and feedback on their personal statements from their mentor. One of the participants was especially thankful for the type of feedback from her mentor through this comment: "I valued the constructive criticism and comments made on my paper. I also appreciated the suggestion of mentioning certain topics to strengthen my case."

Two participants received feedback on undergraduate research funding proposals for their thesis projects. Both of the participants received constructive criticism on their proposals that included information on their project description, significance, methodology, timetable, and itemized budget with justification. Through mentorship with a previous GES student and research funding recipient, the participants had the opportunity to reference a successful research funding proposal and receive first-hand advice from a previous research funding awardee. In the initial assessment of their confidence in preparing a proposal, both participants responded with somewhat confidence (rated 4 out of 5) in their ability. In the follow-up confidence assessment, one participant indicated an increase in their confidence with very high confidence (rated 5 out of 5) in their ability to prepare a proposal, while the other participant responded with no change. Even though the participant indicated no change in his confidence, he recommended that other GES students should participate in this assistance program: "It allows students to undertake real world proposals and budgets that will affect their academic career and allow them to practice a skill that is otherwise not taught in schools."

The majority of the participants (n=6) successfully advanced through their application process and a couple of them were selected for interviews. More than half of the participants (n=5) were awarded various opportunities that included the NOAA Hollings Fellowship, Sea Grant internships, and undergraduate research project funding, which subsequently boosted their confidence in their ability to prepare application materials for at least half of the participants (n=4). Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the operation of many summer internship programs and the research project timelines of the funded participants. This unprecedented disruption to summer internships caused some programs to cancel the internship entirely, such that some of the participants were unable to participate in their awarded co-curricular opportunities. Despite the unfortunate series of events for the participants, many of them expressed sincere gratitude for our mentoring and application assistance program and strongly recommended that other GES students participate in GES-OP. This participant's comment perfectly summarizes the main purpose and intended results of our mentoring program. When asked if she would recommend this assistance opportunity to other GES students, she said: "YES!!! Having GES students share their knowledge based on their own experiences through the program is very beneficial. I don't think I would have received my scholarship without their help."

Conclusion

Student participation in co-curricular research and internships are valuable opportunities for undergraduates to explore their interests, develop skills, and boost their confidence resulting in higher retention rates and increased learning outcomes, especially for URM students. We implemented a new approach to support GES students in their application process for co-curricular opportunities through application assistance and near-peer mentoring. By assisting students with their applications through personalized mentoring, we strived to develop student confidence in their own abilities and themselves. The majority of the program's URM participants secured co-curricular opportunities, and at least half of the program participants indicated an increase in confidence in preparing their applications. As the new academic year begins, we plan to improve and expand the program by spreading student awareness, increasing the number of mentors, and creating an opportunities resource page for all GES students to access.

REFERENCES


Hathaway, R. S., Nagda, B. A., & Gregerman, S. R., 2002, The relationship of undergraduate research participation to graduate and professional education pursuit: An empirical study: Journal of College Student Development, v. 43(5), p. 614-631.

Huntoon, J. E., & Lane, M. J., 2007, Diversity in the geosciences and successful strategies for increasing diversity: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 55(6), p. 447-457, doi.org/10.5408/1089-9995-55.6.447.

Lopatto, D., 2007, Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning: CBE—Life Sciences Education, v. 6(4), p. 297-306, doi.org/10.1187/cbe.07-06-0039.

Russell, S. H., Hancock, M. P., & McCullough, J., 2007, Benefits of undergraduate research experiences: Science, v. 316, p. 548-549.

Sherman-Morris, K., & McNeal, K. S., 2016, Understanding perceptions of the geosciences among minority and nonminority undergraduate students: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 64(2), p. 147-156, doi.org/10.5408/15-112.1.




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