Launched in early 2020 to keep students connected during the pandemic, Augustana College’s mentoring program that partners junior and senior STEM majors with younger classmates from underrepresented groups has won a national award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

The June 2022 cover of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

Augustana earned the Inspiring Programs in STEM Award, which honors colleges and universities that encourage and assist students from underrepresented groups to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to a Tuesday release. This year, there were 79 institutions of higher education recognized with this award.

Dr. Nathan Frank, associate professor of physics at Augustana, said the idea for the mentoring program arose during early 2020, when everyone was seeking ways of remaining connected during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Leaders, including Frank, were intentional in providing ways for underrepresented students to have more opportunities to grow their sense of belonging.

Nathan Frank

The student-led initiative started with virtual events during the 2020-2021 school year. Today, the program has a leadership team of 10 people (students and faculty) and about 50 participants. Members gather once per month for individual or small-group events, including a Pi Your Mentor Day on Pi Day (March 14, 2022) and a senior panel featuring success stories and future plans of graduating Augie students.

Frank said the mentoring program has played a key role in making sure all students feel they have a seat at the table.

“If you really want to have the best science results and you want the best designs, you have to have people from all kinds of backgrounds contributing,” he said.

“Physics doesn’t depend on who you are or where you came from or what you believe. It’s really egalitarian: The universe is what it is for everyone,” Frank said. “Our goal is to make sure that everyone feels welcomed in the studies of our physical universe, especially people of color since they are not well represented in the field.”

Augustana will be featured in the September 2022 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

Inspiring Programs in STEM Award winners were selected by INSIGHT Into Diversity based on efforts to inspire and encourage a new generation of young people to consider careers in STEM through mentoring, teaching, research, and successful programs and initiatives.

“It’s really validating for our program that someone from the outside recognizes this as great work and worth doing,” said Dr. Monica M. Smith, vice president and chief diversity officer at Augustana, who is a co-contributor for the mentoring program.

Monica Smith

“Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to prepare students for the workforce,” said Smith. “We know that STEM fields are lacking in diversity.”

“The Augustana Physics and Engineering Society (APES) connects all students in the major,” she said. “Our mentoring program goes one step further. It intentionally seeks to strengthen the connections between underrepresented students studying physics, with the goal of increasing retention in the major and representation in the field.”

Smith leads Augustana’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, ensuring the college collaborates across the institution to develop programs that are inclusive of the diversity that exists within the college’s student body and employee demographics. Augustana’s campus of 2,500 students includes 23 percent domestic students of color and 13 percent of students from other countries.

Augustana previously has been recognized by INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, receiving the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education recognized Augustana for its campus-wide diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Augustana was one of only seven schools in the country qualifying for the publication’s DOIT certification program in the area of institutional climate.

Learn about the 2022 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award and INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine