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AVELA at UW supports underrepresented students in STEM through mentoring and outreach

By Kiara Doyal, Seattle average

A Vision for Engineering Literacy and Access (AVELA), a registered nonprofit student group at the University of Washington (UW), focuses on closing opportunity gaps in public education and supporting underrepresented minority students. It helps create a brighter future for the next generation of STEM leaders, especially from communities of color.

AVELA has experienced significant growth over the past few years. The organization is committed to its mission of reducing inequity in access for Black and Latinx communities through a mentoring model that is culturally responsive.

According to Kyle Johnson, executive director and co-founder of AVELA, the organization is made up of underrepresented minority students, as defined by the National Science Foundation, who represent the communities they serve. These students go out and teach their peers a variety of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics.

For new UW students, AVELA offers hands-on experience developing and presenting STEM classes. While participation is open to everyone, AVELA especially encourages first-, second-, and postgraduate students at UW to join, especially those interested in building hands-on project and mentoring experiences. This approach allows students at different stages of their academic careers to contribute to the community while gaining valuable experience that can strengthen their own educational and career aspirations.

Driven by a desire to make a meaningful difference and address the inequities faced by many students from underrepresented backgrounds, Johnson and several other students founded AVELA in 2019 to address the educational gaps they experienced in high school.

“After I went to South Africa for college in 2019, I realized that systemic problems require systemic solutions,” Johnson says. “I teamed up with a few peers and created the first AVELA chapter here at the University of Washington.”

Johnson says the organization’s core values ​​— Ubuntu, adaptation and representation, while respecting community and integrity — underpin its success and ensure that its programs are tailored to students’ needs and interests, making the learning experience more engaging and effective.

“There’s a South African term, Ubuntu, that means humanity toward others,” Johnson says. “Our outreach programs focus on the convenience of students, not staff, ensuring that the learning experience is student-centered and student-led.”

For the past five years, AVELA has supported about 400 underrepresented college students in the Seattle area and about 5,000 high school students in Washington state. The organization creates and hosts workshops, camps, panels, and other community outreach events that allow university members to share their college and industry experiences and technical expertise. These activities not only benefit the students who participate, but also help build a stronger community of learners and educators committed to making a positive impact.

“AVELA uses a multi-level, near-peer mentoring model where graduate students mentor college students, who then mentor high school students,” Johnson says. “We share our research, we involve them in our projects, and then they teach those topics to the next generation.”

This cascading mentoring model ensures that knowledge and skills are transferred at multiple levels, creating a sustainable cycle of learning and teaching.

Adaptability is a key strength of AVELA. As a student-led organization, AVELA puts student communities first, listening to their interests and adapting to their schedules.

“Being flexible means using our outreach programs to listen to what students are interested in and what they have time for,” Johnson says. This flexibility allows AVELA to remain relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the students it serves.

Saara Uthmaan, a literature student and outreach coordinator at UW AVELA, joined the organization at the end of her first year of studies, which gave her a chance to explore new areas and gain confidence.

“My first experience with AVELA was during a short educational program where we were taught HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. That’s how I got involved,” says Uthmaan.

“At the time, I wasn’t a technology student, I wasn’t a STEM student, I was a writing student,” she continued. “So AVELA allowed me to start from scratch, learn something, and then go out into the community and pass it on to other students.”

AVELA aims to motivate more black students, especially women of color, to pursue STEM and technology. Johnson said AVELA’s 400 members are 90 percent black, 10 percent Latinx and about 75 percent women, and with the right mentoring and access to technology, those numbers could quickly grow. The organization creates lesson plans for projects that tap into students’ specific interests while covering academic concepts required by the state’s Common Core standards.

“There’s a perception that women, especially women of color, don’t want to go into tech. I think part of what we’re doing here at AVELA is showing that if we put the right systems in place, instead of being forced into non-tech fields, women of color will succeed in tech in droves. 70 percent of our STEM instructors are women,” Johnson says.

Samira Shirazy, president of UW AVELA, says AVELA partners with local middle schools, high schools and community centers with large numbers of Black and Brown youth to ensure the program reaches its target audience. According to Shirazy, these partnerships are incredibly important for reaching students who may not otherwise have access to STEM opportunities.

“A big part of what we’ve seen in these different areas is a lack of access to physical technology and experienced mentors,” Johnson says. “The problem that a lot of students in the black community have is that low representation in STEM fields leads to a whole bunch of different issues, like economic disenfranchisement, racial profiling, and then a lack of community when you’re trying to get into these fields.”

By providing underrepresented students at all levels more opportunities to pursue their interests in higher education and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, AVELA hopes that the Black community will continue to thrive in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields because it will continue to represent the populations it seeks to support.

“We have prepared interesting activities for the students to get them interested in science subjects and also to show them someone who is similar to them at a young age, to create this impression in their minds and encourage them to continue developing and getting involved in science subjects,” says Uthmaan.