A new University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) program to help economically and socially disadvantaged public school students across the state learn about and eventually pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health care is off to an aspirational start.
The impetus behind Pathways Academy, a comprehensive learning and community engagement program envisioned by Brian Gittens, Ed. D., vice chancellor of the UAMS Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, was an $800,000 grant awarded to the division in March by the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families sub grant is renewable for up to five years – a potential commitment of $4 million.
The ultimate goal of the program is to diversify the health care workforce in Arkansas.
Executive Director Shanea Morrison Nelson, Ph. D., who officially took the helm Aug. 2, has hired a five-member leadership team and started working on establishing community partnerships at five pilot sites –Pine Bluff, El Dorado, Hot Springs, Jonesboro and Springdale.
Nelson said her education coordinator, Katina White, has started working with school administrators, community leaders and philanthropists in each area to devise site-specific curriculum based on the needs in each community.
Other members of the team are Tami Lambert, parent engagement coordinator, Gayla Caldwell, program coordinator and Justin Carbage, outreach and recruitment coordinator.
Selected scholars from families that are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will be provided year-round opportunities — mostly on a couple of Saturdays each month — for mentoring, tutoring or attending events, such as conferences and seminars. More intensive training will be available at the various sites for about two weeks during the summer.
“The plan is for students to get started in Pathways Academy at an early age and then grow with the program as they transition into middle school and high school, remaining engaged in the program until they graduate,” Nelson said.
“Many of the students we are targeting aren’t exposed to the idea of a STEM-Health care career,” she said, so by making them aware of the possibilities, “it’s more likely they’ll pursue a career in a STEM-Health care discipline.”
Because a student’s environment also influences their enthusiasm and their ability to learn, she said, “once the sessions with the students start, we’ll host information sessions with the parents on best practices on how to support their students, and academy leaders will provide resources to parents as well.”
“The psycho-emotional part is one of the most important pieces” of helping students remain on a path to a solid career choice, White said, citing barriers such as imposter syndrome, or chronic self-doubt that can that can undermine confidence and success.
Nelson said three existing STEM programs that have been in operation for five years will be absorbed under the Pathways umbrella. They are a Junior Stem Academy for Kindergarten through fifth-grade students, a Senior Stem Academy for sixth through eighth graders and Ramp Up, for students in grades nine through 12. A fourth group for student athletes started this summer.
“The stakeholders play a key role in the success of the Pathways Academy,” Nelson said, referring to the community leaders. “We have plans to establish steering committees at each site to provide resources, and as a way to stay connected to the community.”
Nelson, who has directed workforce and community development programs in Louisiana, said UAMS is the perfect location to serve as the program’s base not only because of its focus on health care but also because of its emphases on scientific research and community involvement.
“The innovative work happening at UAMS has a widespread, positive impact on the community,” she said.
Nelson’s goal is to recruit 500 students statewide by July 1, the beginning of UAMS’ 2023 fiscal year. She said she plans to launch a full recruitment drive in January. Gittens has said he wants to eventually include 1,200 students statewide.
“The achievement gap for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and students from minority backgrounds is well-documented in terms of graduation and matriculation rates,” Gittens said. “Our purpose with this program is equity and providing resources to those who need them, to prepare them for further academic and career advancement.”
White, who was a participant in a college access program in high school, said the pathways she started on then, such as becoming a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, have “really helped in creating the STEM curriculum” for the Pathways program.
Nelson, also a former college access program participant, said her involvement in those programs “really peaked my interest” in pursuing a master’s and then a doctoral degree.
“These programs do work,” Nelson said. “We’re living proof.”