Hispanic-Serving CUNYs Win Federal Investment for STEM Program

LaGuardia Community College and Queens College receive $4.6 million to launch Queens STEM Academy, which aims to increase minority representation in science and technology jobs

A student enters LaGuardia Community College, which has the mission “to educate and graduate one of the most diverse student populations in the country,” according to its website. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

Nathalia Holtzman, a Queens College associate biology professor, became fascinated with development and transparency as she researched organ formation for zebrafish, an optically clear organism. Now, Holtzman, who manages educational development at the public college for historically underserved students, is channeling that fascination toward enabling people to “see where your tax dollars are going.” 

Holtzman, who has served as the Interim Associate Provost of Innovation and Student Success since August, and a host of faculty members from LaGuardia Community College and Queens College, secured federal funding designed to prepare students for careers in STEM fields, as announced on March 21.

Joby Jacob, a biology professor, in the hallways of LaGuardia Community College. Biology is one of the initial three STEM communities receiving this funding, with computer science and environmental science as the other two benefactors. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

As an investment in New York City’s post-pandemic economic growth, the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) provided $4.6 million to aid the professional training of thousands of Hispanic and low-income students to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively known as STEM) trades. 

Over the next five years, LaGuardia Community College and Queens College will partner to create the Queens STEM Academy (Q-STEM). The money will streamline the transfer process for LaGuardia students with associate degrees to earn bachelor’s degrees at Queens College (a four-year college). The grant will also finance new positions at Queens College in career guidance and peer support. 

Minyoung Kim (left) and Mikail Lukianov (right), who are students at LaGuardia Community College and members of its Engineering and Computer Science Club, run their club’s booth at the school’s festival. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

Holtzman said the new grant focuses on support specifically for the roughly 300 students who transfer from LaGuardia to Queens each year. The transferees may need peer-based support, research opportunities and summer programming to make that transition smooth. Further, it aims to lower dropout rates.

LaGuardia Community College’s students are 48% Hispanic/Latinx and Queens College’s are 28% Hispanic/Latinx. Yet, the jobs available today in science and engineering are not in any way that diverse, said Holtzman.

“These students come from New York City public schools, they may come from being the first student in their family to go to college, they may not speak English at home and they may have low income,” Holtzman said. “I do what research shows is most beneficial to elevating their status to giving them success.”

Students enter and exit LaGuardia Community College, where “most of the funding” of the $4.6 million grant will go. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

The U.S. DOE money comes from a grant competition between 569 Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) that takes place every five years. This grant builds upon the success of a 5-year grant awarded to CUNY back in 2016, said Eric Hofmann, the assistant dean of Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College. Since 2016, the federal HSI-STEM program has helped to increase the number of Hispanic STEM graduates by over 40%. 

CUNY graduates of science and tech disciplines doubled from 4,671 to 9,013 between 2010 and 2020, but racial disparities persist, said Hofmann, who was a key figure in securing the grant for the new Queens STEM Academy. Hispanic students made up just 18.8% of all STEM CUNY graduates in 2018 to 2019. Additionally, Hispanic enrollment in college has declined since the coronavirus outbreak. 

The general increase in STEM degree graduates is a strong indicator that more New Yorkers are being prepared for careers that will lead the city’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Hofmann said. Between 2010 and 2018, the national number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded grew by 62%, but not equitably: just 12% of those degrees were awarded to Hispanic students in the United States. 

LaGuardia Community College provost Paul Arcario (left) converses with public relations manager Elizabeth Streich (right). Arcario originally ideated Q-STEM, the two said. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

“STEM is everywhere,” Hofmann said. “We’re in an economy coming out of a pandemic, where we can’t fill jobs, so we’re preparing more qualified people to fill what is already happening in New York.”

This grant follows a trend of the government investing in STEM education. In New York City, there’s been a fast-rising focus on science and technology education since December 2011, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg bestowed land and a $100 million grant to Cornell Tech. In its initial phase in 2017, Cornell Tech’s Manhattan campus held STEM classes under New York City’s visionary Applied Sciences NYC initiative. 

Biology professor Maria Entezari, who is also LaGuardia Community College’s Natural Sciences Department chair, said the seamless accepting of class credits from LaGuardia to Queens College will help the students confidently roadmap their journey to graduation. She predicts others will follow in the footsteps of Q-STEM’s transfer pipeline model.

Biology professor Maria Entezari, LaGuardia Community College’s Natural Sciences Department chair, in her office. Queens, NY. Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

“This model is best for students who want to follow their dreams,” Entezari said. “When those students have their ‘a-ha moment’ during my lessons – that keeps me motivated. It also keeps me young.”