In 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) observed the first detection of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the cataclysmic collision of two black holes. The Syracuse University Gravitational Wave Group played a leading role in this…
Philanthropy that Empowers Students to Succeed in STEM
When Ed Mitzen ’88 graduated from Syracuse University, he could never have imagined that he would one day own a multimillion-dollar company and employ hundreds of people. But the man who dreams big—and achieves those dreams—also never forgot his humble roots. Maybe that’s why his company’s philosophy is all about leveling the playing field—a philosophy that also guides his philanthropy, including a recent $1 million gift to Syracuse University as part of the Forever Orange campaign.
Mitzen launched Fingerpaint in 2008, his third successful marketing/advertising company. As described on its website, Fingerpaint’s “people-first philosophy attracts top talent and gives them a space to thrive. Our strict no titles, no offices, no egos structure creates an environment where collaboration and creativity happen naturally. This level playing field lets us learn more from each other, integrate our services and teams better, and, ultimately, create work that solves our clients’ most complex marketing challenges.”
Providing opportunity at Syracuse University for talented students and creating an environment where they can thrive and succeed inspired Mitzen’s latest gift to strengthen the SUSTAIN program in the College of Arts and Sciences. Launched in 2017 with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the A&S SUSTAIN (Strategic Undergraduate STEM Talent Acceleration Initiative) provides scholarships and academic support along with professional and social experiences to attract and retain students from underrepresented groups in science and mathematics (STEM).
“SUSTAIN provides an opportunity and a proven pathway to success for students who could not otherwise afford to attend Syracuse University,” says Mitzen. “First, it provides the financial support they need. But it goes much farther by giving them the mentorship, guidance and confidence to develop their passions, understand their value, and have experiences outside the classroom that prepare them for success after graduation.”
The fact is that around the country nearly half of STEM majors abandon their program of study before completion. Retention rates for underrepresented populations in STEM are about 30%. The SUSTAIN program changes that trajectory, with 75% of students continuing as STEM majors, and a retention rate of about 90%.
“Students who come from low-income households and poorly resourced high schools are especially at risk for leaving STEM fields,” says John W. Tillotson, associate professor and chair, Department of Science Teaching, College of Arts and Sciences, and principal investigator for the NSF-funded initiative. “They often suffer from what’s known as imposter syndrome, feeling like they are not talented enough to compete with their more well-prepared peers. SUSTAIN levels the playing field, providing every facet of support they need to help them recognize their capabilities and gain the confidence essential for success.”
“Having a faculty mentor is essential,” says Dean Karin Ruhlandt, College of Arts and Sciences, who recalls her own difficult experiences as a first-generation college student. “I didn’t have role models. What we have found is that it’s critical to have mentors and to build a community among fellow students. We are also exploring different learning strategies—these are all factors driving successful outcomes for our SUSTAIN scholars.”
Mitzen says his appreciation for the opportunity gap has evolved over time. His father passed away suddenly shortly before he went to college. “If it wasn’t for grants and loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school,” he says. “When I joined the Dean’s Advisory Board at the College of Arts and Sciences, I realized just how many talented kids were there in the college only because they got financial support. It became really important to me to encourage those students with limited means to pursue opportunities that would create a better life for them and their families.”
Mitzen believes that the SUSTAIN program will result in a more diverse pool of graduates who can bring their distinct talents, voices and ideas to companies and organizations. Mitzen endorses the same approach in the corporate world. In his book “More Than a Number: The Power of Empathy and Philanthropy in Driving Ad Agency Performance,” Mitzen says employees who are given the tools and resources they need to feel empowered are critical to a “winning corporate culture.”
“As my career has progressed, I’ve realized that I’m at my happiest when I’m able to give back,” Mitzen told Authority Magazine in an interview last year. “I’m so thankful that I’m in a position to do so and it’s why I built philanthropy into my company’s culture. Every year, we contribute time, talent and treasure to a number of deserving nonprofits and causes.”
Mitzen recently launched a new family charitable foundation called Business for Good to share resources, strategies and connections with businesses seeking to improve lives and shape communities “to help as many people as we could, to do as much good as we could do.”
Mitzen’s continuing desire to lift others up and make a difference in their lives ensures a bright future for the SUSTAIN program at Syracuse University and its promising scholars.
“Ed’s gift is going to cement the legacy of the SUSTAIN program going forward,” says Tillotson. “Long after our grant funding from the National Science Foundation is gone, we will be able to help students who have great talent overcome barriers to the education they deserve.”
About Syracuse University
Syracuse University is a private research university that advances knowledge across disciplines to drive breakthrough discoveries and breakout leadership. Our collection of 13 schools and colleges with over 200 customizable majors close the gap between education and action, so students can take on the world. In and beyond the classroom, we connect people, perspectives and practices to solve interconnected challenges with interdisciplinary approaches. Together, we’re a powerful community that moves ideas, individuals and impact beyond what’s possible.
About Forever Orange
Orange isn’t just our color. It’s our promise to leave the world better than we found it. Forever Orange: The Campaign for Syracuse University is poised to do just that. Fueled by 150 years of fearless firsts, together we can enhance academic excellence, transform the student experience and expand unique opportunities for learning and growth. Forever Orange endeavors to raise $1.5 billion in philanthropic support, inspire 125,000 individual donors to participate in the campaign, and actively engage one in five alumni in the life of the University. Now is the time to show the world what Orange can do. Visit syracuse.edu/foreverorange to learn more.