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Chico State

Multimillion-Dollar Grants Provide Undergraduate Research Opportunities to Underserved Students in STEM

A grid of diamond-shaped images shows students engaging in various kinds of research, from looking through a vaccum chamber to attaching wildlife cams to trees to working with mushrooms, to looking through a container filled with zebrafish.
Design: Christian Burke; Photos: Jason Halley

When Alma Mendiola talks about her daughter, Gloria Sanchez, she often uses the word tenaz.

“It means tenacity,” said Sanchez, a junior majoring in mechatronic engineering. “My mom has always been my biggest supporter. My dad died when I was 10, and she reminds me that things can get hard and you have to push through them. She says I’m going to do big things.”

Sanchez became enamored with research in the seventh grade. Whether scribbling down data points or drafting papers on her findings, she knew she wanted to one day work in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). She studied hard, crossing the border from their home in Mexicali into the United States every day to attend high school, with determination to attend college and be the first in her family to earn a four-year degree.

When she heard about the Chico STEM Connections Collaborative (CSC²) and the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate at Chico State, she leapt at the chance. She’s now three semesters from earning her degree and plans to work in software development for robotics after graduation—tenaciously doing those “big things” her mother envisioned for her and fulfilling a dream for them both.

Sanchez’s success wouldn’t be possible, she said, without the support network of CSC². In addition to providing her guidance on what classes to take and workshops on everything from financial literacy to resume writing, she spent this last summer investigating the optimal assembly for 3D printed components as part of an advanced manufacturing robotics line.

“CSC² opened doors to the kind of career I want to have in the future,” she said. “But most importantly, they have been so patient in helping me think that I belong. We all have a sense of imposter syndrome, but with their guidance, I know I’m right where I should be.”

The program’s origins date back to 1985, when the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Construction Management started the MESA Engineering Program (MEP) to provide academic and support services to students from historically underserved populations. After successfully helping thousands of students, then-Director Paul Villegas had a vision to expand to the other STEM-related colleges: Agriculture and Natural Sciences.

He applied for and was awarded a $4.3 million Title III Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) grant to grow the program. With a vision to see California’s STEM workforce reflect the diversity of the state’s population, CSC² was born.

In addition to the services MEP provided—academic advising, financial aid and scholarship application support, professional development and career pathways— the grant award established a new element, a provision to create undergraduate research opportunities that today are the linchpin of the program.

Over the past five summers, CSC² has supported nearly 300 students in undergraduate research opportunities across the three colleges.

“We never used to look like a research institution, and now we have all of these events happening every summer,” Villegas said. “It’s a definite win-win situation and, quite honestly, it’s changed the culture of our campus.”

As the original grant funds began to run out, Villegas and MEP/CSC² Director Lupe Jimenez (Social Science, ’96; MPA, ’99) began pursuing additional funding to continue STEM-related research opportunities. In 2021, the University received two additional HSI grants totaling more than $7.5 million to continue the program for another five years.

These funds are investments in Chico State students, their research, and their futures, Villegas said, adding that their most robust and in-depth educational opportunities come when they pair up with faculty for undergraduate research.

Access to such opportunities is how Rigoberto Vazquez (Mechanical Engineering, ’19) harnessed a lifelong interest in math and science. As an undergraduate student, he had the opportunity to conduct research with Ozgul Yasar, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing. Together, they worked to design and engineer scaffolds to grow tissues for organ transplantation.

“Initially, I wasn’t too interested in that kind of research,” Vazquez recalled. “But doing it sparked something in me and I wanted to pursue more.”

The work with Yasar was a springboard. Since graduating, Vazquez earned his master’s degree in 2021 in nuclear engineering and radiological science from the University of Michigan, where he was also honored as a commencement speaker. Today, he is working on his PhD in biomedical engineering at Cornell University.

“CSC² has enabled students to succeed at a higher level, to progress faster, and for a number of them, to achieve a higher level of success than they even realized was possible,” Jimenez said.

Supporting underserved students ties directly to closing the persistent achievement gaps among students of color, from low-income backgrounds, or who are otherwise historically marginalized.

“It’s something we have been aware of for years,” Jimenez said. “It’s about how students feel, how they are being prepared, how they are being treated, or feel they are being treated. We try to address their specific needs to help them maximize their talent. We try to make an OK student good, good students great, and great students superstars.”

That commitment begins before students even set foot on campus. CSC² actively recruits students from high schools and community colleges. With a focus on relationships, they attempt to create a smooth transition from the time a student is admitted to the University until classes begin and continues with intensive support during their first year along with access to services for the duration of their undergraduate experience.

“CSC² is rooted in the theoretical idea that this support network creates a personal relationship,” Jimenez said.“ That personal connection is where the magic happens.”

CSC² also collaborated with other CSUs to track outcomes and provide data for one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive evaluations of best practices. Our outcomes inevitably will play a crucial role in creating systemic change for improving the student success of program participants from Latinx and underserved backgrounds.

The metrics already prove it. Since CSC² began, the Latinx STEM graduation rate increased by 79% and the gap between all STEM graduates and Latinx STEM graduates decreased by 65%. The gains for Latinx STEM transfer students were even more substantial.

“Without this program, I would not be graduating. This program is the reason I’m still here,” said Marifer Martinez, a senior majoring in animal science. “The advisors, the tutors, the faculty help, they are like family.”

As someone who is first-generation, low-income, and Hispanic, when she heard about the stipends CSC²
students receive to conduct summer research, “I was like, ‘Yes, sign me up. This is a chance and I’m taking it.’”

Martinez’s parents didn’t fully understand, thinking she would help with the family business running a food truck. Instead, she spent this last summer traversing the hillsides of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve to examine spring quality, survey plants, and capture and review footage on wildlife cameras for the first ecological study of recently added acreage.

Never imagining she’d be doing undergraduate research, she felt thrills with every finding.

“I want to change the world. I want to be something more,” she said. “CSC² gave me the opportunity to stay in school and change the world.”

Meet CSC² student researchers and learn about their research.