Ivette Torres began her scholarly pursuits at UC Santa Cruz with the intention of majoring in biochemistry and eventually going into medicine. Her first year went well — she earned good marks in her math and chemistry courses. Once she entered her second year, however, things began to unravel.

“When you’re a first generation student and you’re coming into college, just having time management and study skills is already a huge barrier,” Torres said. “Then you add in having to work two jobs to just stay here and dealing with your own emotional and financial stresses and family issues — it gets really complicated.”

Before Torres, a third-year chemistry major, even set foot on campus, her family was involved in a car accident that killed her father and left her mother physically disabled. Burdened by guilt of leaving for college while leaving her mother and younger sisters behind, Torres’ physical and mental health began to decline.

Illustration by Kelly Leung.
Illustration by Kelly Leung.

After a six-week episode of bronchitis, she withdrew from all of her classes. The next quarter, she retook those classes but was ultimately unable to pass because she was working two jobs to support herself while battling depression and anxiety.

“That quarter kind of determined that I couldn’t continue the biochemistry path because I had to appeal in order to take [biology] 28 a third time,” Torres said. “My appeal wasn’t granted […] [The appeal committee] even recommended I shouldn’t be pursuing science.”

Data collected by UCSC’s Division of Student Success since 2012 show a trend in which students who are prospective Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors ultimately become ineligible to declare their intended major. This phenomenon is known as attrition.

“There’s somewhat of what I’d call a funnel effect,” said assistant vice provost (AVP) for student success Pablo Reguerin. “What happens is as students start to take courses, math, chemistry 1A is a big one, and as they start getting to the second year, the number of students who remain eligible to declare a STEM major goes down.”

Moreover, there is evidence this funnel effect has a disproportionate impact on students of color.

“You can see the variation between those who are STEM intended who don’t make it to the major declaration,” Reguerin said. “And that process itself — when you disaggregate by race — is highly racialized with a lot of students of color not getting to that stage.”

This inequity for prospective STEM majors from underrepresented communities comes from a variety of issues including financial barriers, family concerns and the time commitments of a full course load with one or more jobs — all of which Ivette Torres experienced for two years of school. Also, many such students come from school districts with underfunded science and math programs, which create additional hurdles to overcome.

To address the problem of attrition from STEM, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) announced on Sept. 27 that UCSC is one of a handful of central coast schools that will receive a new grant from the Department of Education, which will provide nearly $6 million over a five-year period.

“Congressman Farr knows STEM education is vital and this funding will help prepare more students for good jobs,” said Sam Chiron, Farr’s press secretary. “He is really pleased to support UCSC and STEM education.”

The UCSC initiative, the Science Education and Mentorship in Latino Lives in Academia (SEMILLA) Project, is  funded by this grant and is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) initiative under the Division of Student Success which aims to reduce the inequities in STEM fields with respect to Latinx and other underrepresented student populations.

In 2015, UCSC was recognized as a HSI, which, among other requirements federally mandates the university to enroll 25 percent or more Latinx students. In 2015, UCSC had 4,942 Latinx-identifying students on campus.

The project aims to expand existing support structures and programs, rather than invent an entirely new system. One example of this is the proposed STEM Learning Center, which brings together Learning Support Services, the Multicultural Engineering Program, the ACE Program and the STEM Diversity Program. The idea behind the STEM Learning Center is to create a centralized network of resources rather than several disparate programs.

New services are also being added to augment these expanded programs such as the proposed holistic STEM advisors, who will not only examine the student’s academic performance but also their personal, family and professional lives to provide more individualized guidance. They will be responsible for assisting faculty with early alerts, should a student show signs of struggling.

“STEM students benefit from an advisor who is not looking solely at their academic trajectory but is actually looking at what else is going on for them in their lives,” said AVP of student success Pablo Reguerin.

The SEMILLA project plans to reduce the attrition rate of Latinx students in STEM by 20 percent over the next five years and plans to increase the number of Latinx and low-income STEM students who graduate within six years by 10 percent, according to the grant’s abstract. The program also seeks to increase the number of Latinx transfer students in STEM from partnering community colleges by 20 percent, as well as increasing the three-year graduation rate of those students by 20 percent.

While the inequities in STEM are deep and far reaching, there is optimism for the new program and what it can bring to students from historically underrepresented communities.

“I want to see Santa Cruz cater to students who are coming from backgrounds where their schools didn’t have a strong science program,” said third-year chemistry major Ivette Torres. “What’s really important is that once you get here and you’re attempting to pursue science, is that you do have those resources.”