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What Low-Income Students Pursuing STEM Fields Are Up Against

More colleges are focused on offering support and financial help to low-income students in STEM majors.
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What Low-Income Students Pursuing STEM Fields Are Up Against

"My favorite class. I would say it's [computer science] or math. I like the numbers," Maria Medrano-Gonzalez said. 

Medrano-Gonzalez is a college freshman and an engineering major — a rarity for low-income students

"I want to do programming, so I was thinking maybe I want to try and get a job on Google. But later on, I want to try to get a master's and be a teacher," Medrano-Gonzalez said. 

Majors in STEM require students to have a hefty background in science and math before they walk into a college classroom — something that high schools in low socioeconomic communities often lack. 

And applications don't always show those disparities. When admission officers had more data about public school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, University of Michigan researchers found officers were slightly more likely to admit the students.

"The biggest challenge is these students are coming from families who don't have any experience in this area and being first is a big challenge," Houshang Darabi said.

Darabi is an associate engineering professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. He's done award-winning research on low-income students in engineering. 

"Nobody is saying that we should just give them everything that they need without competition, but at least give them the same training and then say, 'Now you compete' so the competition is fair," Darabi said.

Another deterrent for low-income students is the cost of college.  

Medrano-Gonzalez is part of a work-study program at UIC. 

"I have a part-time job in here, so I go to my job and then after the job I'm going to classes and sometimes after classes I have to go back to job. So, like, working and then the classes and then in the afternoons my homework, so it's hard sometimes, but I really, really like it," Medrano-Gonzalez said. 

For students in their first year of college, like Medrano-Gonzalez, research shows programs designed to support freshman students up the chances that they'll graduate. 

"If you pick two students who are academically talented, same way and one is low income and one is high income, the likelihood that the low income one will not graduate is much higher than the other one," Darabi said.

"So now I'm trying to look for scholarships for my next semester and for next year," Medrano-Gonzalez said. 

Offering support and financial help to low-income students in engineering is something more colleges are focused on doing. 

UIC is one of those colleges. It got a grant from the National Science Foundation. It will offer scholarships and mentoring support to low-income students going into engineering. It will include help for 30 incoming students starting next year. The grant aims to offer different voices in engineering. 

"The problem is that if you don't have all the groups involved, then all the viewpoints are not incorporated and what happens is that basically you will be coming up with a system that is not useful for everyone. And it turns out that those systems cannot be successful, they create actually more problems than solving them," Darabi said. 

Currently, women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM jobs — especially people who are black or Hispanic. 

"This semester I took two workshops ...  in one of them, we were eight in the classroom and we were just two womens. In the other one, we were like 23 and just me. So, like, sometimes most of them boys and it's kind of intimidating," Medrano-Gonzalez said. 

Medrano-Gonzalez is finding motivation to chase her dreams for her family. 

"I want to work to help my mom, she has always been there for me, and she raised me up without my dad. When I was younger, my dad left and he never came back. So now I want to give it back to her; everything that she does for me and most of it that I do or that I want to do is for her," Medrano-Gonzalez said.