The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is getting a boost in its effort to recruit, retain, and graduate more underrepresented students in nutritional sciences, agriculture, and STEM-related fields.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its grant program for Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), has awarded $250,000 each to two University of Arizona initiatives:
An expansion of the Nutritional Sciences degree program at the UArizona Yuma campus, with the aim of creating a pipeline for more students to get into dietetics and similar careers.
An enhancement of the acclaimed CALS Arizona’s Science, Engineering, and Math Scholars (ASEMS) program to provide additional support to underrepresented students pursuing studies in STEM, agriculture, and the like.
“I am so grateful to the leadership of these awarded grants for developing a compelling case and a culturally responsive set of strategies for strengthening our capacity as a Hispanic Serving Institution,” said Marla Franco, UArizona assistant vice provost for HSI Initiatives. “The impact on our students and the community will be far reaching.”
At the Yuma campus, the grant will help the university build a culinary research laboratory and demonstration kitchen, plus a community garden, for students to hone their skills.
It is part of a transition from an almost exclusively online program to a hybrid model with more face-to-face, hands-on experience, said Ashlee Linares-Gaffer, a co-principal investigator on the grant and an associate professor of practice in the CALS School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness.
The CALS-ASEMS grant, meanwhile, will be used for support and mentorship opportunities for students, especially early in their academic careers, to boost retention, said Jennifer Teske, the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness.
While the two initiatives are distinct in location and focus, each seeks to attract and support students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, especially in science-related fields.
Tanya Hodges is the regional academic programs manager of the Yuma Distance Campus, executive director of Business Initiatives and Grant Development, and the other co-principal investigator on its grant. She noted that the student population there is roughly 80 percent Hispanic, with 90 percent being the first in their family to attend college. About 14 percent of adults in the region have bachelor’s degrees, compared with 22 percent to 30 percent elsewhere in the state and nation, she said.
Teske said retention remains a challenge for first-generation, economically challenged, and multicultural students. However, the CALS-ASEMS program already has demonstrated positive results in helping students navigate through and remain in college. The grant will continue those efforts, Teske said.
‘All-encompassing support’ for CALS-ASEMS students
The grant helps fund student support specialists, emergency scholarships, peer mentors, and more. Students will receive career and graduate school preparation as well as research opportunities, part of what Teske calls all-encompassing support. And a portion will go toward community-building events for students as they begin their academic journey.
“We want to meet and engage students early,” Teske said. “We know this works. This will help increase the students’ sense of belonging, which is integral to retaining the scholars at the university.”
Teaming up with Teske on the grant are Sandra Bernal, who is on the faculty in the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, and Karina Rodriguez, director of recruitment in the College of Humanities. The three, who are past HSI Fellows, conducted the preliminary research for the successful proposal and implementation plan.
Some of the grant will pay for new recruitment videos, particularly for potential Pima Community College transfers and students at three southern Arizona high schools with large Hispanic populations.
Another component brings in faculty from humanities and behavioral sciences, which makes the program more broad-based. “We need to understand their other likes and interests,” Bernal said. “Do they need another outlet?”
‘Food as medicine’ in Yuma
In Yuma, the students in the Nutritional Sciences/Dietetics program are juniors and seniors, most of whom transferred from Arizona Western College and Imperial Valley College in the huge, mostly rural region.
The new kitchen and garden facilities are slated to be ready by next summer. The Yuma program already has been transitioning to more in-person instruction, instead of the previous online-only model that began five years ago.
The program currently has six juniors and six seniors, but Hodges said they anticipate more than tripling that to 20 students per class level over the next few years through this and other potential grants and recruiting.
The program will serve a need for the area to have more nutrition professionals in public health and related fields. It will provide leadership, experiential learning and building of so-called “soft skills” for students as they embark on their careers, Linares-Gaffer said. Many may go on to the University of Arizona’s graduate nutrition and dietetics programs.
“We want to develop the pipeline,” Hodges said. “We understand that not all of the students will become registered dietitians. But we also need people who understand nutritional science,” for careers as science teachers, health educators, healthcare staff, and in other fields.
A key phrase in the grant is “food as medicine.” “We want our students to recognize and demonstrate in practice that food can be used as a tool to prevent illness and chronic health conditions, as well as to manage things like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” Linares-Gaffer explained.
Students will come away from the program not just understanding nutritional benefits of food but other aspects that are critical to the health and wellness of the community: safe harvesting and food preparation, food insecurity and access, storage, convenience cooking, and more.
And the program will embrace the rich cultural food and agricultural traditions of the area.
“I predict that our students will make foods that are culturally significant to their families and community, but they will make more nutritionally dense modifications to them,” Linares-Gaffer said.