Putting Their Best Foot Forward
Growing up in Charles Town, a small town of around 3,000 in the eastern corner of West Virginia, Corey Mason knew early on that, outside of a major scholarship, his options for college were extremely limited. With divorced parents and his dad cutting grass for a living, Mason says he was "forced into a place where I needed to pay for my entire education myself."
But when he learned that he would receive an ROTC scholarship to study engineering anywhere he wanted, he began wondering what exactly there was beyond the "cornfields, cows and mountains" of West Virginia.
Being the first in his family to go to college, Mason sought help from some trusted neighbors whose grass he's cut since he was eight years old. "We were talking about Ivy Leagues and then they said, 'How about Tufts?' It seemed like a good reach for me."
Still he wondered, was he reaching too far? Would being at the top of his local high school AP calculus class be enough?
"I had taken all the same classes as everyone else coming to Tufts, but I was sincerely worried about how well the math program at my high school had actually prepared me," he says.
Fortunately for Mason-and Aliandro Brathwaite and Leticia Lopez-Benitez, fellow members of the School of Engineering's class of 2014-Tufts created a program to make engineering a viable option for interested students from all backgrounds.
Eight incoming engineering students from underrepresented populations enrolled in a six-week bridge program this summer, taking two classes for credit, participating in academic and college life workshops and gaining an edge in their math studies. Now the eight students are pursuing similar course schedules this fall and belong to the same first-year pre-major advising group, which will bring them together again several times throughout the semester.
"We know the faculty, most of us have a couple credits under our belt and we know the campus. And I know I am going to be friends with and have the support of these kids for the entire four years," Mason says.
Called BEST (Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts), the program was piloted by the School of Engineering and the Center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Diversity, in conjunction with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
A New Beginning
Mason had already applied to Tufts sight unseen when he came to April Open House earlier this year. He says he "fell in love" with the campus. "There was green grass in the middle of a big city."
The first Mason heard of the BEST program was upon opening his Tufts acceptance letter.
"'Your acceptance to Tufts is contingent upon the fact that you participate in a six-week bridge program called the BEST Scholars'-I don't know why I remember that word for word," Mason laughs. "I was really thankful to learn that part of the program was a calculus refresher specialized to our individual needs."
Once classes started, he realized quickly that he needed the program more than he could have imagined. "I knew I wasn't prepared, but I didn't know how unprepared I really was," says Mason, who is currently the only Tufts undergraduate from West Virginia. "Everything was new to me, people were three steps ahead of me and I was playing catch-up the entire six weeks."
After what he has deemed the hardest and best six-weeks of his life, Mason says he walked onto campus in September with an ace in his pocket: "I went in feeling a step ahead and I don't think anyone else is came in quite as prepared as the BEST Scholars."
Mason was far from alone when it came to his concerns, says Travis Brown, project manager for the Center for STEM Diversity.
While more than 90 percent of students who enter the School of Engineering as freshmen will graduate with an engineering degree, Brown notes that this success rate has not been achieved when it come to attracting and retaining African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, low-income and first-generation engineering majors.
"There are a number of really strong students who apply for the School of Engineering, but may not have had the opportunity for adequate calculus preparation," Brown says. "Maybe they have taken AP classes, but scored a three or four instead of a five on the AP exam; maybe instead of a 750 on the math SATs, which is the average for engineering students, they scored in the high 600s to low 700s."
Taking the 'A' Train
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Aliandro Brathwaite says his fascination with engineering started with public transportation.
"I'd always lived next to a subway line and I was interested in how it was built, how the very heavy trains stay on this elevated track," he says. "Even today, when I'm around the country, in a different city, I always look for an opportunity to experience their transportation system."
Brathwaite went to private school as a young boy, but things changed dramatically in third grade when his father died and money became tight.
"I was transferred to a public school with a much longer commute and an increased school size, going from about 400 students to 1,500," Brathwaite says. "It was a lot harder to adjust to the bigger class sizes and I wasn't getting the attention I needed."
By his sophomore year in high school, Brathwaite was given the opportunity to attend boarding school at St. Mark's in Southborough, Mass. Boosted by the additional academic support he received there, he began looking at engineering programs in New England for college.
The freshman says that BEST prepared him not just for the engineering curriculum, but all aspects of being a Jumbo.
"I think what surprised me most about the program was how candid and honest everyone was about what I should expect from my Tufts experience," he says. "By the end you know exactly what is going to happen, how hard the classes are going to be and what will be expected of you."
You Are Not Alone
Leticia Lopez-Benitez was born in East Boston shortly after her parents came to the United States looking for a better life. "They were both born in El Salvador," she says. "My dad got his high school diploma there but didn't go to college due to financial issues, and my mother only completed up to seventh grade."
That was the same grade that Lopez-Benitez was in when she discovered her passion for engineering.
"The tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, and I was given a science project to design a home that could survive a tsunami," she says. "I really enjoyed it, and I remember my teacher saying it was engineering-based, so from then on when people would ask me what I was interested in, I would say engineering."
As the school year progresses, Lopez-Benitez knows the network fostered over their six-week summer program is never too far away.
"With neither of my parents having gone to college, I don't have the support system from them when it comes to advice on classes and such," she says. "I really felt like the program was telling us, 'You are not alone.' "