Support Learn by Doing
By Danica Liang
Cal Poly Class of 2019 graduate
Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies
Ethny Stewart knew she’d find her way back to Cal Poly – even if it wasn’t as a student.
In the summer of 2018, Stewart returned to the place where her academic career started as an undergrad to help lead the TRIO Achievers Program, a federally-funded program that helps close equity gaps for students who identify as low income, first generation, or disabled. Her transition back to Cal Poly came after continuing her education at UC Santa Barbara and gaining professional experience in higher education outreach and admissions, which included working with underserved students in STEM fields.
With a Doctorate in Education degree from UC Santa Barbara now in tow, Stewart seeks to serve as an advocate and bridge for underrepresented students – and help them succeed. Stewart recently provided a glimpse of her role, motivations, and what she loves most about her job.
1. Describe a day in the life as the Director of TRIO Achievers at Cal Poly. What is your overarching priority when you get into the office every day?
Each day is slightly different. I often see students either for check-ins or as new intakes into the program. We accept students in the program during the academic year, so pretty much as students depart, we’re able to take in more students. Most of my time is spent in contact with students, who come in and out of our office throughout the day for different reasons – academic, personal, professional, or graduate school advising, for example.
In addition, I meet with my staff and other entities on campus, because we intersect with other programs in terms of tutoring, career services, and the Living-Learning Community in the residence halls. This year, our students are housed with EOP and Cal Poly Scholars students, so we’ve tried to coordinate our efforts in providing a variety of activities for student populations. For example, one of the EOP advisors set up a Tenaya Hall picnic for National Picnic Day last year.
2. What motivated you to get involved with higher education diversity initiatives as a profession?
In grad school, I was always involved in programs that intersected with diverse student populations. For example, I worked with a group that was a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded program as a graduate student assistant. The program was a bridge program between undergrad to graduate students. It targeted students of color, specifically underserved populations in STEM, and provided a jumpstart on student’s education. The transition is a little different, in that courses are sequenced and you’re given the set sequence courses you’re supposed to take, versus grad school, where you spend a lot of time figuring out what you need in order to complete your research.
So, we built the same kind of components as here at Cal Poly: your trajectory, prep courses, getting students acclimated to their advisors, finding mentors, etc.
3. How does your past experience as a Cal Poly student inform your current work?
It informs my work a lot. I think I definitely understand the difficulty of declaring a major and the quick pace of a quarter. I also definitely understand the rigors of being at Cal Poly and I appreciate and embrace the hands-on experiences that I had. In terms of resources and what questions students might have, for the most part, some things have stayed the same, but a lot of issues have changed.
4. What kind of an impact do you hope to make on the historically underrepresented student community you serve?
I’m definitely trying to serve as a resource and assist students in navigating the educational process, in terms of questions in areas that they maybe don’t have experience. Definitely, that’s embedded within the larger Student Support Services requirements, so that’s why we have tutoring and workshops that are mandatory, etc. Basically, we’re serving as a resource and a point of contact, should students have questions.
Part of our grant funding is geared toward supporting students who want to advance to grad school and professional schools, and I definitely have experience in that area on both sides – as a grad student and as an actual admissions officer for grad programs.
I’m hoping that students ask questions and utilize the program as a resource. All of us, including our administrative assistant and our graduate student, have gone through master’s programs, so we’ve all have had that experience. Some of us as professionals and some of us have completed the traditional two-year route with a thesis, so we all have had different experiences and can talk to students about them.
5. What do you love most about your job?
Probably just interacting with students and getting to hear about what’s going on.
I joined Cal Poly around summer last year, so I didn’t really get to see the events and programs leading up to the spring quarter. Spring is always exciting because we have quite a few students who graduate – some of them are mentors as well! I love getting to hear where they got their jobs, what they’re doing next, and also just seeing students do well and finding different unique paths that they didn’t think about or think about exploring.
Secondly, I love hearing from students about hidden resources on campus that they know about. I’m always learning something new from students about what’s available, and it’s always great to hear something new from them and share something with them as well.
Interested in supporting important student programs like TRIO Achievers?Visit https://studentaffairs.calpoly.edu/givetoday/areas. For additional information, visit the TRIO Achievers website.
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