Campus group encourages Native Americans, Hispanics in science

by LANA GROVES

Despite efforts to encourage minority students to pursue degrees in the sciences, such as chemistry, physics or biology degrees, enrollment numbers at the University of Utah are low.

Native American and Hispanic students comprise less than half a percent of all 21,566 undergraduate students from fall 2008, according to enrollment records from the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis. The majority are enrolled in the College of Humanities or Nursing. Only 6 percent are enrollment in the College of Science.

“Nationally, one of the fields of study under-represented is sciences,” said Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president for the Office of Diversity at the U “We want to make sure the University of Utah can attract many more students of color to the programs, even by bringing students from across the country.”

Villalpando helped organize a national conference for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in October 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference brought students interested in science degrees from all around the world to the U.

The Utah student chapter for SACNAS doesn’t think the U is doing enough to encourage students.

Doug Rodriguez, a physics graduate student and secretary of the Utah chapter, said the low enrollment numbers are frustrating but not surprising.

“Science has always had low interest, but even when students sign up for a degree they often drop out,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and SACNAS Utah Chapter President Mauricio Rascon have plans to improve those numbers.

By December, the chapter will begin to visit elementary, junior and high schools in the Salt Lake Valley to talk to students and encourage them to continue to higher education and major in science-related degrees.

“A lot of students ask: What am I going to do with a physics degree?” Rascon said.  “Most people think they can just teach. They don’t know about all the opportunities available for medical physics or other career paths.”

Rodriguez said the need is especially great among Native American students. According to the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis 2008 enrollment records, of the 150 Native American students enrolled at the University of Utah, only 12 are in the College of Science.

To combat these low numbers, College of Science Dean Pierre Sokolsky recently created a committee to help retain minority students to study biology, chemistry and physics degrees.

Rodriquez said that for every science degree, about 70 percent of all students listed as caucasian who enroll complete their degree, but only 10 percent of all Native American and Hispanic student graduates with a science degree.

“We’re going to hold mentoring sessions and have juniors, seniors and graduate students influence the newer freshmen [and] sophomores, and hopefully convince them to go into graduate school and bump these numbers up,” Rodriguez said.

The older students can also help them with difficult classes and subjects, he said.

Rascon said he remembers the effort it took to work through difficult classes, especially upper-level math classes. He said there were times he considered switching majors.

“When you go into the sciences, it’s like learning a whole new language,” Rascon said. “And if you don’t schedule your classes right, you can get extremely overwhelmed.”

Moises Terrazas, a former president of the student group, said teachers make a big difference in helping a student stay motivated.

“The people that gave me the motivation to continue was my family and good mentors in the science department,” he said.

Villalpando said the U is an excellent place for students of color to study sciences. He said many diverse students are already interested in studying with Mario Capecchi, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.

“Capecchi is a great example of a student facing adversity and trial, and making revolutionary discoveries in science,” Villalpando said.

Rodriguez said some students struggle to pay for school and become discouraged.

The Utah SACNAS chapter tries to combat financial problems by offering about 10 scholarships every year to high schools students who will study at the U. The scholarships range from full tuition to half tuition for a year.

Rodriguez said many students don’t know that graduate schools often offer to pay students’ tuition.

Yet, the Utah SACNAS chapter has made strides over the past few years to encourage Native American and Hispanic students at the U to enroll in the College of Science and involve themselves in activities on campus.

Derek Lokni, a chemistry student and the U who is Navajo, said he joined SACNAS to meet other students and take part in activities on campus. He said more students should be interested in the group, but many don’t know it exists.

“Members of the (chapter) have helped me stay in chemistry,” Lokni said. “And it’s a lot of fun. We talk about some of the goals we have after graduation and what we like about chemistry, physics, biology or anything else. It’s there for you.”