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‘Always there’: Engineering Student Success Center receives AFRL Excellence in STEM Award

June 21, 2023 - by Kim Delker

Whether it’s holding tutoring sessions on calculus, leading sessions on self-esteem, organizing networking and resumé events, or hosting future Lobos at engineering and computer science hands-on activity events or summer programs, if it’s about the UNM School of Engineering, it’s likely that one office is behind it — the Engineering Student Success Center.

And for all those efforts and more, the ESS Center is receiving a 2023 Excellence in STEM “Higher Education Program of the Year” Award from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Tech Engagement Office.

photo: Members of the Engineering Student Success Center team.
Members of the Engineering Student Success Center team.

The honor will be presented at a ceremony, known as the STEMYs, on June 23 at Q-Station in Albuquerque. The annual awards honor students, teachers, volunteers and other New Mexicans for their STEM outreach efforts.

Under the direction of Elsa Maria Castillo, the ESS team has become the backbone of the School of Engineering’s outreach, recruitment and retention efforts over the decades. Officially, ESS “offers pre-college outreach and recruitment activities as well as holistic co-curricular activities to support our engineering and computer science students at The University of New Mexico.”

What that means in practice is nearly anything that helps current and future School of Engineering students find their passion, thrive, meet others and develop confidence, as well as career success.

Castillo said the long list of what ESS offers students includes tutoring, scholarship and financial aid support, mentoring programs (STEM professionals or peer mentoring), connections to undergraduate research faculty mentors, internship and job placement, career development and networking opportunities, academic success workshops, community service opportunities in the engineering field, student organization support, and Multicultural Engineering Programs (which was the predecessor to ESS, dating back to the 1970s).

In addition to the support that is offered to current engineering students, ESS doesn’t stop there. They offer robust pre-college education and outreach activities that provide hands-on experience and information about School of Engineering departments, degree programs, services, and areas of research to prospective students interested in STEM fields. This includes day events on campus, off campus, summer programs for high school students in the community, and summer workshops for science and math middle school and high school teachers.

When most of the campus is closed, ESS is often hard at work on evenings, weekends and summer.

“The ESS Center goes above and beyond the call of duty,” said Christos Christodoulou, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering and former dean of the School of Engineering. “ESS always puts its best foot forward to solve any problem our students may encounter. Every single one of the staff is very dedicated and do not give up easily.”

With Castillo leading the scholarship, financial aid and grant-funded career and outreach efforts, the ESS team also includes Doug Williams, unit administrator who also runs the tutoring program; Nada Abdelhack, job and internship coordinator; Yadeeh Sawyer, first- and second-year experience manager; Toby Tafoya, recruiter; and a team of student employees who offer office, tutoring and outreach support.

In 2022, the team was the recipient of the Provost Committee for Staff Outstanding Workgroup Award.

Even though UNM operations were dramatically changed by the pandemic in 2020-21, ESS — which had relied on in-person events before — still found a way to thrive.

“The transition into a virtual environment is a perfect example of ESS’ extraordinary services and dedication to our students’ success,” Christodoulou said.

ESS chose to run all the K-12 activities virtually for the almost two years the pandemic lasted, and they were one of the few programs at UNM that offered on their own to forward calls from their office to their personal cell phones. During the pandemic, ESS also set up a 24/7 hotline to assist our students in need as we didn’t want students to feel isolated during the pandemic.

According to the records, more than 12,000 K-12 students are impacted each year through various activities ESS is involved with, which includes hosting day-long events on campus, visits to schools, summer programs as well as internship programs for high school students, connecting them with university research opportunities in the School of Engineering. That also includes the Center for High Technology Materials, the SMILab, as well as the CISTAR program, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center led by Purdue University.

The summer programs for high school students are kept free, thanks to funding that Castillo continuously pursues from agencies such as National Science Foundation, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, collaborations with faculty members and many other sources.

ESS also makes it a priority to attend STEM-related outreach activities with community partners throughout the year. To name just a few, that includes AFRL’s Super STEM Saturday, the Tuskegee Airmen space camp, the NM Gear Up for Girls program, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers’ Noche de Ciencias, the New Mexico Society of Professional Engineers Math Counts competition, and programs supporting Sandia National Laboratories partners such as the NOMAD program or the Future City competition.

“The ESS Center spreads information about college career possibilities and opens up the possibilities for students who, many times, do not have STEM as a career option,” Christodoulou said.

For current UNM Engineering students, the ESS team also provides a wide variety of information about careers and serves as a hub for student organizations that give students valuable professional and personal connections.

“Whether it is getting together to write a grant to bring in new projects to support student activities or coming in on any weekend to represent the School of Engineering in community events, the ESS team is always there,” he said.