By Emily Christensen | Photo Julie Pagel Drewes ’90
Wartburg College has been a member of the Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska STEM Partnership for Innovation in Research and Education (IINSPIRE) grant partnership since the program’s inception in 2011. Despite its complicated name, the alliance’s mission is clear: increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM education in the Midwest.
The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is now in its second round of funding. Dr. LeAnn Faidley, associate professor of engineering science, said she saw moderate results from the first round of funding, which allowed the college to start a summer orientation program specifically for IINSPIRE students, sponsor tutors for STEM courses, provide mentors for first-year students, and organize regular gatherings where students could connect with each other, faculty and staff across campus. In the second wave of funding, Faidley said the participating schools are specifically focusing on increasing retention and research opportunities.
In early February, 15 students and four faculty members attended the annual IINSPIRE conference where Ali Ali ’21, a biochemistry major from Iowa City, presented a poster on his research last summer at the University of Iowa, and Jeannie Dees ’19, a math major from Chicago, was recognized as Wartburg’s Outstanding IINSPIRE Student of the Year.
Dr. Jay Garaycochea, a visiting assistant professor of biology, is a scholar of a similar program at San Jose State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree.
“I attribute most of my success in moving from my undergraduate to my graduate work on that program,” Garaycochea said. “I was taught how to prepare my applications, how to research, I had a cohort to study with, and I also went to a conference, much like this one.”
Garaycochea’s parents immigrated from Peru before he was born. They encouraged their son to go to college, but he floundered through his first year in community college because he didn’t know how to study. He took the next year off, and questioned whether he would succeed if he went back to school.
“It was tough to get over that start to realize what I could pursue. I chose psychology because it was something that was interesting to me, but I didn’t think much about a potential career,” he said. “I realized I didn’t want to do therapy, so I tried research and really like that. I just didn’t think I could earn a Ph.D. I didn’t think I had what it took.”
Much like Wartburg’s IINSPIRE program, the SJSU program offered Garaycochea mentors, networking and research opportunities, and help with applying for graduate school and jobs. Now, he’s using that experience, as well as what he learned researching the struggles and successes of minority students, to inspire Wartburg students. He’s organized monthly seminars that cover topics ranging from how to study to handling conflict in the lab.
Garaycochea, who teaches many of the IINSPIRE students in one of his two Intro to Biology courses, also steps in when he sees a student who needs more intervention and direction than IINSPIRE can provide. More than once, he’s met one-on-one with a student and offered to be the connection they need on campus to stay engaged and succeed.
“We need to see the retention rates in our IINSPIRE students increase, especially from first to second year. Hopefully IINSPIRE can help them develop the skills they need to succeed and persist through graduation,” he said. “They need to know that they can be successful, even if they had a rough first year, and that there are people here who want to see them succeed.”