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Applause: MESA celebrates 40 years of success

Growing up in a working class neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, Norberta Noguera didn’t know many people who had gone to college.

But a window to that world – and its endless possibilities – opened on Saturdays when Noguera’s parents would drop her off for a day of activities with the MESA program.

From middle school through high school, Noguera spent her Saturdays visiting colleges, meeting engineers and scientists, and having fun with hands-on math and science projects, like building a container that could keep an egg from smashing when it was dropped.

“It was just a really good time with practical applications,” Noguera said. “We got accolades and encouragement, and more than anything, MESA showed me possibilities I had never known.

“It taught me that it was OK to be an African-American woman who was brainy in math.”

Today, Noguera holds a B.A. in industrial engineering from UC Berkeley, an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School, and has risen through the ranks at AT&T to become an assistant vice president, supervising a staff of 225 people.

“MESA made it possible,” Noguera said. “It was absolutely foundational.”

A MODEL FOR EDUCATION PARTNERSHIPS

The Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program, which is administered by UC, has two primary goals: helping educationally disadvantaged students make it to college, and addressing California’s shortage of math and science professionals.

“We’re working in schools that are among the lowest performing in the state, places where most of the kids qualify for the free lunch program, and where many students are the first in their family to go to college,” said Teri Lee, MESA’s communications director.

As it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, MESA stands out as a model for collaborative education partnerships. Programs begin in middle school and extend through community college to four-year-universities. UC, CSU, independent universities and the community college system are all involved with MESA.

“We’re trying to serve all the students of California – which college they go to is not our primary concern – it’s providing the academic preparation that will help them succeed,” Lee said.

TECHNOLOGY WORKFORCE SHORTAGE

The other key partner is private industry, which has taken note of MESA’s success rate, and sees the program as an avenue for developing the highly skilled workforce it needs.

In all, industry partners augmented MESA’s budget by 30 percent last year, most of which was earmarked for specific activities to augment the program’s core services, like conferences and teacher professional development in math and science.

Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, spent about $60,000 in 2009 on scholarships and leadership training programs for MESA students.

“We need that pipeline for developing technical talent,” said Marvin Lopez, a MESA alum who leads PG&E’s diversity recruiting program. “California’s demographics are changing, and if you don’t reach out to historically underrepresented groups, you won’t have a workforce.”

California is projected to have a shortage of 40,000 engineers by 2014, as a wave of engineers hit retirement age and begin leaving the profession.

“It already takes a while to find good technical people,” Lopez said. “ And it will be a bigger challenge in the years ahead.”

Demographic trends paint the picture. Latinos, African-Americans and American Indians comprised nearly 44 percent of California’s population in 2006, a figure that is expected to grow. Yet those same groups received only 13 percent of the bachelor degrees in engineering.

Quite simply, unless California increases the percentage of underrepresented minorities studying math, science and engineering, the workforce shortage will be acute.

“Minority kids are not going into engineering and technology in the numbers that we need,” Lopez said. “And it’s a two-way street – there aren’t a lot of role models for them to follow.”

A HAVEN OF SUPPORT

MESA combats the problem using a variety of techniques, including academic assistance, mentoring and peer support.

At the community college and university level, MESA Centers provide a haven where students studying science, technology, engineering and math can find tutoring, academic guidance, and a place to establish ties with peers majoring in the same fields.

“It feels like a club,” said Tuan Ha, a computer engineer at Intel who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2005.

As a recent immigrant from Vietnam, he found friendship and a place to practice his English at the Cosumnes River College MESA Center. When it came time to apply to UC Berkeley, the MESA director and his other new friends helped proofread his personal statement.

“As a newcomer to America, it was nice to have friends and be able to help them, and let them help me with my English,” Ha said. “It was very important and helpful.”

That kind of peer-to-peer support is one of the most important factors when it comes to producing success for educationally disadvantaged students, Lee said. As a result, MESA has made it a cornerstone of their college-level programs.

“Collaborative study helps reinforce learning. If you can articulate something to someone else, you understand it on a deeper level,” Lee said. “The MESA Centers are deceptively simple – they are a de facto place for sharing information and providing support among students taking on the most difficult college majors.

DIMINISHING RESOURCES

The difficult reality is that, despite MESA’s track record of success, diminishing state dollars have forced the program to cut back on the number of students it serves, even as demand for math and science professionals intensifies.

MESA alums like Lopez know first-hand how well the program works, and are doing their part to keep it going strong.

Lopez, who credits the program with helping him succeed as a computer science major at UCLA, now mentors a MESA student there.

The student was class valedictorian at her high school, but coming from a small school in a small town, she now finds herself working hard to keep up with her peers, he said.

“She crystallizes the whole struggle,” Lopez said. “She’s competing with kids who have had an entirely different set of opportunities. I work with her every week on what she can do to get ahead. We’re trying to level the playing field.”


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