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GEM Program Provides Financing, Connections for Underrepresented Graduate Students in STEM
The National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) is a partnership between corporations, government laboratories, research institutions and universities that enables underrepresented students to pursue graduate education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Since its founding in 1976, GEM has helped over 4,000 African American, Native American, and Hispanic Americans attend graduate school. With leadership from Graduate Dean’s Faculty Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion Dawit Negussey, Syracuse University has accelerated its support for the GEM program in the past three years, recruiting 12 GEM Fellows for master’s and Ph.D. degree programs since 2018. Five GEM Fellows are expected to enter graduate school in fall 2021.
Darrelle Tyrone Butler Jr. is the first GEM Fellow at the School of Architecture and the first architecture student nationally to be a GEM Fellow. Butler learned about GEM in 2017 while attending Tennessee State University. He was a part of the National Society of Black Engineers and GEM gave a presentation to minority students interested in pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM fields at the national conference. Unfortunately, at the time, architecture was not a discipline included in the GEM Fellowship.
Then in 2018, Syracuse University became one of the 13 schools nationally to designate the architecture program as a STEM discipline. Butler enrolled in the fall. “My experience in architecture programs at Syracuse has been great. I’ve learned a lot in the classroom, the studio, and the informal learning opportunities that the school provides.”
“I am thankful that there is an entity like GEM that finances the cost for young, aspiring people in higher education like myself to go forward. And in going forward, I am now on track towards my entrepreneurial goals as an architect and real estate developer” says Butler. “I recognize GEM as a social avenue for underrepresented communities to more easily reach the highway of success. For me, the National Society of Black Engineers was what helped me onto the GEM path, I hope the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students at Syracuse will direct students onto the GEM path as well.”
Courtney Ogando, a GEM Fellow in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, is earning her master’s in bioengineering. “I can truly say that if it wasn’t for the GEM program and Syracuse University, I would not be in graduate school right now,” Ogando says. As a first-generation student from a low-income area in Brooklyn, New York, Ogando said there was no practical way she could finance her degree without support from a fellowship. She applied to several graduate programs and was not offered any financial aid. “Then I was contacted by Dr. James Henderson, the director of the bioengineering graduate program at Syracuse University at the time,” says Ogando. “I was told that their graduate committee was very impressed with my GEM fellowship application and although Syracuse University was not one of the schools to which I initially applied, they offered me admissions to the Masters in Bioengineering program with full tuition support.” Ogando says she visited and had confidence Syracuse was a great fit. “Aside from the great support from the GEM family at Syracuse University, the national GEM program provides meetings to keep all GEM students across the country connected as well as workshops to help us grow professionally,” she says.
The fellowship has also helped eliminate the financial barriers for Russell Fearon. “My professional aspiration is to have freedom. That’s freedom with time and with money,” says Fearon, who is pursuing master’s degree in bioengineering. As a first-year student, Fearon wasn’t interested in attending graduate school. “That wasn’t part of my plan, even sophomore year. I was a mechanical engineer and I wanted to go to school, get out as quickly possible and get a job. Now I realize I need to attend graduate school to become self-sufficient doing something that I love. Making a paycheck is great, but I want to own it,” he says. Fearon is interested in using his graduate research to develop solutions for people with diabetes. His participation in GEM will also support his business, SugEx, short for the Sugar Experience. Fearon’s SugEx glucose monitoring device has won several business competitions and is a national finalist for the ACC InVenture Prize, garnering interest from several pharmaceutical and venture capital firms. The 2021 ACC InVenture Prize Competition will be broadcast on PBS in April.
GEM Fellow Vito Iaia first entered the program as an undergraduate student in California, which allowed him to complete his master’s degree at UCLA. The GEM fellowship also enabled him to complete three internships at MIT Lincoln labs. “That just basically accelerated my professional experience in a field that I was really interested in but not sure if knew I wanted to commit to, which was quantum computing,” says Iaia. He applied to several Ph.D. programs and his involvement with GEM financed his first year at Syracuse University. “It has definitely given me the opportunity to get professional industry experience and make connections,” says Iaia. He cited his experiences when applying for his current fellowship and will be looking to capitalize on his involvement with GEM after completing his degree. “I’m going to apply to a lot of industry and government jobs. MIT Lincoln labs will be on the top of my list,” he says.
Negussey says the GEM program is an important step in increasing the representation of African American, Native American and Hispanic students in STEM fields. “In terms of employment opportunities, raising the standard of living and improving the overall economy of the United States, we need to have people in STEM,” says Negussey. “This program helps bring us closer to what we would like to be as a university and what we need in order for our community and society to achieve great things.” GEM Fellows are often recruited by corporations like Intel, Adobe and IBM. Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, is a GEM alumna and the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. In higher education, GEM alumnus Darryll Pines currently serves as the president of the University of Maryland. The dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, Alec Gallimore, is also a GEM alumnus. They are among many others in high level leadership positions in academia, industry and government.
Peter Vanable, dean of Syracuse University’s Graduate School, is excited to see the GEM program continue to grow. “I credit our schools and colleges for being fully invested in growing this program,” says Vanable. For example, the College of Engineering and Computer Science upgraded the GEM program support to mitigate the challenges presented by COVID.
GEM fellows are also encouraged to participate in events called “Getting Ready for Advanced Degree Laboratory” (GRAD Labs) to encourage other underrepresented students to consider applying for the fellowship and attending graduate school in STEM fields. GRAD Labs are career planning events that provide information about attending graduate school. Syracuse University hosted GRAD labs in 2015 and 2018 and partners in co-hosting with other universities every fall. This year it will once again join with other GEM member universities in the Central New York area to offer a GRAD lab in the fall either in virtual or in person, as the public health situation permits.
Iaia has presented at GRAD labs and provided an overview of fellowships. He says the GRAD labs are a good way to make professional contacts and meet people in professorships or industry positions. He says the GEM fellowship has changed his life. “It is definitely a great experience, and you meet so many people when you go through this program. I emphasize a lot on the professional contacts, but the other grad students that you meet, you really get this widespread understanding of who these people are. Very motivated, very go-getter, they’re definitely going to be the future of whatever field they go into,” he says. “It’s just one of those things where it makes the world after your academic life a little bit smaller.”