Whether stitching up pretend wounds on stuffed animals as they played veterinarian or squishing their hands into bowls of homemade slime, sisters Ajahnee and Amaria Harris were practically joined at the hip as little girls.
As STEM Scholars at Washtenaw Community College, not much has changed over the last decade or so.
Their shared childhood passions for fun science-related activities are transforming into meaningful adult career pursuits.
Ajahnee, 23, has been set on a medical career ever since elementary school when she met her great aunt, a cardiologist from California, at a family reunion. Over the years she frequently reached out from afar with questions.
Her dreams began to crystalize during her first semester at WCC in 2019. That’s when her chemistry instructor suggested she would be a great candidate for WCC’s STEM Scholars program.
Thanks to the program, Ajahnee has attended the Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Anaheim, California, and was also awarded a scholarship.
STEM Scholars was established at WCC in 2018 to encourage and facilitate success for students seeking science, technology, engineering and math careers. The program supports underrepresented students through grants from the National Science Foundation, Michigan Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation and other organizations.
In just a few years, interest in STEM Scholars has nearly quadrupled, with more than 300 applicants between 2018 and 2021. The retention rate for each cohort is 100%. Ajahnee graduated in December 2021 with an associate degree in Math & Science with a concentration in Pre-Pharmacy. She is completing two additional courses before transferring to either the University of Michigan or Michigan State University in January 2023, where she’ll pursue a nursing degree.
Her dream is to help women as a midwife and potentially later continue her education to become a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.
“STEM Scholars changed the trajectory of my college experience. Before I was just going through the motions, attending class and working for good grades,” Ajahnee says. “STEM Scholars allowed me to get out of my shell and meet people with like-minded interests.
"The programming provides good networking opportunities, and you meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t necessarily cross paths with.”
Some of those people attended the biomedical conference in California in 2019 and framed Ajahnee’s calling as a midwife.
“The conference opened my eyes and helped me see myself in places that I wouldn’t have otherwise," she said. "At one session I learned the mortality rate is substantially higher for minority women than Caucasian women during birth. And having a minority doctor in the room can help them survive.
"That opened my eyes to wanting to actually make a difference in the medical field rather than just getting a job in the medical field.”
Her enthusiasm for STEM Scholars helped shape her sister’s experience. Amaria, 21,
joined the 2021 cohort last fall. Enrolled in WCC's 3D Animation Arts program, Amaria leans more toward the "Technology" and "Art" portions of STEAM — an evolution
the STEM education movement with the addition of “arts.”
Amaria’s ultimate dream is to create her own animated shows or cartoons. Short-term, she hopes to land an internship at Cartoon Network as soon as she’s earned 80 credit hours.
“My sister introduced me to STEM Scholars. I’m so glad she did because I see how valuable the mentoring, networking opportunities and workshops are," Amaria said. "I already feel so confi dent and excited about achieving my dream of animating shows.”
As a STEM Scholar, Amaria wants to be able to mentor her peers and “build up a community."
"Not a lot of people know that animation is a part of STEM or STEAM, and I want to be able to help more people see that,” Amaria says.
The Harris sisters grew up in Ypsilanti and attended Lincoln High School, but the family has since moved to Taylor.
“I would love to see more minority students in STEM and ﬂourishing, and I think one way is they could start a program like STEM Scholars at the high school level. I didn’t even know it was a discipline until college,” Ajahnee says.
Indeed, WCC’s STEM Scholars assist with K-12 educational outreach opportunities, including hands-on monthly Super STEAM Saturdays activities to engage middle school students and the college’s annual STEAM Week events open for high school students.
Life Sciences faculty member and STEM Scholars coordinator Susan Dentel says the program is effectively reaching women, underrepresented minorities and students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
About half of the 93 current STEM Scholars are female, 40 are economically disadvantaged, 30 are underrepresented minority students and 35 are first-generation college students. To date, 69 students have earned associate degrees from WCC and transferred to four-year colleges or universities to pursue bachelor’s degrees.
STEM Scholars = Student Success
Each new STEM Scholars cohort participates in a three-week summer intensive. The program is nuanced and designed to support and build confidence through:
•Communication & Skill-Building Workshops
•Critical Thinking and Leadership Activities
•Summer Experiential Opportunities
This story appears in the Fall 2022 edition of Launch magazine. See complete issue.