Multimillion Dollar Award Supports STEM Excellence

Multimillion Dollar Award Supports STEM Excellence

Becky St. Clair

Southwestern Adventist University was recently awarded a $4 million Hispanic-Serving Institution Title III F STEM Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, provided by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), for their STEM Excellence project proposal. This comes just a year after receiving a $2.5 million Title V grant awarded in October 2020.


The grant-writing team had a six-week window to put together the competitive proposal.  Nearly 250 other institutions applied, out of whom only 93 were selected for funding. 


“The funds provided by this grant provide a great opportunity for SWAU to raise our emphasis on STEM careers and create a network of support for students who are at risk,” explains Donna Berkner, vice president for academic administration at SWAU.


According to the project’s abstract, The STEM Excellence project, “addresses identified needs of Hispanic students, as well as low-income and high-need students in biology and other STEM disciplines, enabling them to complete a college degree and shorten their time to completion of that degree.” It also includes a unique element for a STEM project which in the proposal included mental health support for students.


“The ramifications of a global pandemic include mental and emotional challenges students previously may not have experienced,” explains Austen Powell, Pathways to Success project director. “The U.S. Department of Education saw an increasing need for mental health services at colleges and universities, which is why this element was included as part of the proposal.”


To address mental health needs on the SWAU campus, part of the grant money awarded will go toward establishing a full-time counselor position, as well as purchasing software to allow students to seamlessly check-in and schedule appointments. The university also intends to provide training for all faculty and staff to allow them to better identify and serve students’ psychological needs.


“This grant could not have come at a better time,” says Marcel Sargent, associate vice president for academic administration. “It provides for a full-time mental health therapist to support not only students but faculty and staff in terms of counseling education. It’s truly an answer to prayer for our entire campus.”


Another designated portion of the grant award will be used to remodel and enhance biology labs at the university. This is something that SWAU had been wanting to do for some time, and through this grant, they have an opportunity to address these needs. One hundred percent of the lab project will be funded by the grant and plans to begin the project are underway.


“This grant will allow us to develop and equip a dedicated student research lab and to redesign STEM learning spaces to make them more collaborative and student-focused,” comments Erin Maloney, professor of biology. “We’re thrilled to be able to expand our biological science programs and undergraduate research to give our students more opportunities to engage with STEM in ways that are most inspiring to them.”


The university has plans to hire two additional biology faculty and is working on updating its curriculum, which will include a math course specifically created to intersect with the biology program. Through this grant, SWAU has also developed a transfer student program to provide peer mentors called Course Navigators to help advise new students on which courses to take, aid in tutoring upper-division courses, and simply provide any needed support. 


Incoming students make the Department of Biological Sciences the fourth largest program for the 2021-2022 school year. This new grant from the U.S. Department of Education will provide current and future classes with the ability to learn in a cutting-edge environment, led by highly qualified professors.


“This grant has opened doors for our students to succeed in marvelous ways and allows us to increase the excellence of our programs so when they graduate, our students will have the tools they need to succeed,” says Powell.


Members of the grant-writing team included: Donna Berkner, vice president for academic affairs; Marcel Sargeant, assistant vice president for academic affairs; Austen Powell, project director of Pathways to Success; Erin Maloney, professor of biology; and Tom Bunch, university grant writer.