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Recruiting and retaining STEM students of color

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A Penn State junior on a mission

17 October 2018

Karina Grullon.
Karina Grullon.
The prospective- student campus tour that Guest Editor Andy Stephenson mentions in his introduction to this issue of Science Journal is a familiar scene to Penn Staters. The tour is meant to excite prospective students about college life and to sell them on the feeling of being a Penn Stater. But not everyone sees Penn State through the same optics.

“Penn State sells itself,” said Karina Grullon, a third-year biology major. “You see this campus. It’s so beautiful and lively. But to a person of color, you want to see yourself on this campus, and that’s only possible if you see people who look like you on your tour.”

To promote the diversity that does exist at University Park, programs like the Student Minority Advisory and Recruitment Team (SMART) have been established to share the success of underrepresented minority (URM) students at Penn State and assist with the recruitment of ethnic minorities. One way SMART does this is by hosting URM students at University Park and showcasing the real diversity and success that can be had here.

“SMART is one of the reasons why I came to Penn State,” said Grullon. “Through SMART, I could see myself going here.”

Today, Grullon is active in SMART, and she is a leader both in Spend a Fall Day, an overnight experience for students who have applied to Penn State, and in Achievers, an on-campus event for high-achieving students with offers of admission to University Park.

“At these events, as a student of color, you see other students of color. A lot of times when you just have a standard campus tour, they are just going to tell you about the University, what’s in this building or that library. But to be able to see the multicultural side of things, you, as a minority student, can begin to see yourself here,” said Grullon. “For them to see URM students being successful helps.”

Diversity is important to Grullon, a native Spanish speaker who identifies herself as Latinx. She noticed that even in SMART there was not a very strong Latinx representation, so she lobbied the University Admissions Office to host a mini–Spend a Day event during Hispanic Heritage month—called ¡Vámonos a Penn State!—to increase applications for admission to Penn State from other Latinx students.

“I wanted to expand who I am and what I’m doing here. I wanted to have a purpose,” said Grullon. “It’s easy to complain about a lack of diversity, but what are you going to do about it? If you want to be around more students who look like you, go to admissions and find ways to recruit them, or join an organization where you can do that.”

Karina Grullon in the lab.
Karina Grullon in the lab.
And Grullon does just that and more. In addition to her recruitment initiatives, she puts her background and academic skills to use as a program assistant to mentor other science students in the First Year in Science and Engineering (FISE) Special Living Option, a residential setting for first-year science students. The students Grullon mentors benefit from a variety of programs to help them develop time-management and learning skills, participate in professional development activities, and explore co-curricular and extracurricular opportunities. These students also have in-house tutoring and mentoring services, all in an atmosphere created by the shared experiences of other science students.


The purpose of FISE is to help students help themselves be successful. But first-year success is just part of an overall initiative to help students who start out in STEM to stay in it. Getting enough high-quality STEM students to fill the seats available at the Eberly College of Science is not the most pressing challenge the college faces—keeping them through subsequent years is. The attrition rate for URM students is even more pronounced.

“A lot of time, students of color who are not doing well academically feel like they have to leave science or major in something else less strict or accelerated. I feel like these students who don’t perform up to the standard of the college struggle because perhaps their high school didn’t prepare them for college very well. Or they might need someone to advise them to do things like not taking four tough courses in one semester, but instead take two tough courses this semester and two next semester,” advised Grullon. “They may not have had anyone to offer them that advice in the past. To have role models and upperclassman who have been successful will make them more successful and allow Eberly to retain them and retain the diversity.”

Outside of the typical advising and mentoring channels offered by the University, Grullon has joined other students to charter a Penn State chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). The objective is to provide mentoring and advising on a peer-to-peer basis, hold workshops, and reach out to high-school students to encourage them to pursue careers within STEM, and also to invite members from other universities to visit Penn State to share their experiences. In this way, more resources for URM students will be available to fill the gap they feel and hopefully retain them in STEM degrees through graduation.

Grullon is exactly the successful URM student who can inspire others to succeed in STEM. She has been successful inside the classroom as well as in science research outside of it. She has participated in multiple internships, including one at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that involved HIV research in Botswana. She has secured an internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City this summer that will focus on lung cancer research. When she returns to campus to begin her senior year, she will lead a group of students on an alternative fall break to an urban area to do work in a community focused on the social justice topic of educational and health disparities.

While on campus at University Park, Grullon conducts research on neuronal response to injury, specifically on the genes involved in dendrite regeneration, as part of the laboratory research team led by Melissa Rolls, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. From this work, Grullon was awarded the University Fellowships & Phi Kappa Phi Peter T. Luckie Award for Outstanding Juniors in Science and Engineering for her poster presentation, titled “Determining the Role of mthl3 in Dendrite Regeneration,” at the 2018 Undergraduate Research Exhibition. The ultimate goal for Grullon is to become a physician, practice in an underserved area, and use her multicultural and bilingual background to benefit the community.

By Joel Ranck