American University STEM students regularly and enthusiastically engage in outreach programs to serve the wider community. In a normal year, these programs would involve visiting local schools in person and mentoring students face to face.
But this spring, mentoring had to be virtual. Luckily, through a new partnership with HeadsUpDC, a small, parent-run non-profit that serves to support programming at McKinley Technical High School, AU students found a way to virtually mentor local high- school students interested in careers in biotechnology.
The program started with an idea from Lynne Arneson, adjunct professorial lecturer in health studies and premedicine program director. Initially intended as a way to track pre-med opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea merged with student Keke Schuler’s Fall 2020 ICORPs project to become a mentoring program in collaboration with local DC schools.
After careful consideration and consulting with local teachers, it was decided that it would be easiest to work with one school at a time, and to focus on individual student mentoring in one topic. The problem now was to find a school. Then, around the end of the semester, AU heard from HeadsUpDC.
It was a natural partnership, and AU quickly recruited a total of eleven undergraduate students to serve as volunteer mentors for seniors in McKinley’s Academy of Biotechnology. The AU volunteers would help with the seniors’ capstone projects, providing advice on how to move forward with the experimental projects. AU volunteers would also provide advice and support in college readiness and other life skills.
“I always wished for support.”
Many of the AU volunteers were recruited through the premedicine program or the biotechnology program and were eager for the chance to mentor and interact with local teens, paying it forward with their own college experiences.
“When I started out doing research and writing lab reports, I always wished I had someone around my age who had gone through this same process to give me feedback and support,” says Peyman Owrang, a sophomore and biology major. “The chance to help some students out who are just beginning this process drew me to join this program.”
Volunteers have been mentoring students for several hours per week, ending in June when the high-school students will present their projects at McKinley’s annual STEM Fair. Of course, the mentoring has been entirely remote, something Owrang says was not a barrier at all.
“I feel like I am starting to form close relationships with the students, who now feel comfortable asking me questions on how to improve their writing and overall projects. I also feel like I have been able to make this process easier and less stressful for them through my feedback and suggestions,” he explains.
In an already difficult year, local students have been able to benefit from the extra mentorship and guidance provided by AU’s STEM students. And for the AU students themselves, the program has been very worthwhile.
“I love when the students say my feedback was helpful or that my comments made them better understand how to write a specific section better than they did before,” says Owrang. “That gives me such a rewarding feeling!”