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MATC Celebrates Success of 3rd Scholars Program

by Erin Urbank & Amber Hadenfeldt

The 2015 Mid-America Transportation Center’s (MATC) Scholars Program took place October 28-31. A diverse group of 34 students, 7 faculty members, and 14 distinguished guest speakers from around the country were in attendance. The Scholars Program is designed to promote graduate study among underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields, which is accomplished through targeted seminars, workshops, and networking opportunities.

“Attending a Historically Black College and University, I was worried how I would fit into a predominantly white institution,” said one student participant. “This conference helped remove those fears for me.”

The program kicked-up off at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) new Nebraska Innovation Campus Conference Center. Here, faculty and students from North Carolina A&T University, Tennessee State University, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shores, and Southern University led sessions on the reasons to attend grad school, what to expect once they’re accepted, choosing the correct program, and finding a faculty mentor.

Interacting with faculty members was a major highlight for many of the program attendees. Dr. Ibibia Dabipi, Engineering and Aviation Sciences Professor at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, reminded the scholars that they were all gathered in his morning session for a reason – professors from their home universities recognized potential in each of them. Encouragement from successful academics goes a long way, as one student expressed appreciation for the awareness that “people are willing to invest in us.”

Midway through the morning, attendees took a break from the sessions for a tour of the UNL Makerspace in the Nebraska Innovation Studio, a creative space for the local community to work on their own projects. The day finished out with advice about graduate school admission exams, undergraduate research experience, communication skills, and funding and budgeting finances.

The next day, the attendees learned about UNL’s graduate studies program, the NSF graduate research fellowship and internship program, and the Eisenhower fellowship for STEM Disciplines. Scholars had the chance to talk to a panel of engineers in various positions, such as a graduate research assistant and industry professionals. The last event of the day included dinner and a heartfelt keynote address from Dr. Luis Vázquez, Regents Professor at New Mexico State University, about his own journey and the dedication and perseverance it takes to succeed.

“I am thankful for the wealth of knowledge I have received this week. The speakers, presenters, and instructors did an awesome job of providing useful information in a supportive and motivational manner,” said one student participant who concluded that the program was a “life changing event.”

The 2015 Scholars Program wrapped up on Saturday with a tour of Memorial Stadium and closing remarks from Midwest Roadside Safety Facility researcher Karla Lechtenberg, TAMU Regents Professor Dr. Judy Perkins, and Dr. Laurence Rilett, MATC Director and Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering.

To help gauge the effectiveness of the Scholars Program, MATC collaborated with UNL’s Bureau of Sociological Research to develop pre- and post-surveys for students to provide anonymous feedback on their experience. The results from the surveys revealed that over 97 percent of the participants rated the program as good or very good, and 100 percent of them said they would recommend the program to a friend. In addition to aiding with program improvement, these surveys provide a foundation for future data collection and analysis. MATC is interested in determining if there is a link between program participation and the achievement of higher degrees and career success later on.

Focus groups were also organized and conducted to allow students and faculty an opportunity to assess the program and discuss how their experience has impacted their future plans and career goals. The majority of students in the focus groups commented that the program increased their desire to obtain a higher degree than what they had originally planned on attaining before the program.

MATC is proud to have brought such a smart, enthusiastic, and promising group of engineering students to Lincoln, Nebraska to not only learn valuable skills and gain practical advice about continuing to graduate school, but also to get to know each other and make important connections with faculty in a wide range of positions and specialties. MATC looks forward to making a difference for another great group of students at the next Scholars Program in Spring 2016.