Originally included in Empowering Innovators, 2018. 

At the Global Leaders Program, we believe Chicago-area youth possess the innate ability to create great change, and through the program, we cultivate the natural talent and capacity for innovation of Chicago’s underserved populations. Specifically, we aim to increase access and resources for those from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM: students who are from low-income households, first generation college-bound, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. Diversity in STEM stimulates innovation, increases opportunity for social mobility, and promotes economic stability.

Defining the Problem

Research shows that students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM often choose majors or careers outside STEM fields not because of lack of academic skills or aptitude, but rather due to difficulties drawing connections between work in STEM and their own communities and experiences. (Brown et al., 2015, Journal of Applied Social Psychology). Student identity plays a dramatic role in STEM career decisions, and exploring identity can help develop new or more successful pathways into STEM fields. Studies indicate that students who are underrepresented but skilled in STEM often choose to pursue other fields, favoring careers which allow them to directly serve others. These groups are more likely to major in fields such as education and public policy, which allow them to “give back” to their communities. Our approach connects STEM to community engagement, thus redefining STEM as a field that matches their values and identities.

The persistent underrepresentation of specific groups, backgrounds, and perspectives in STEM exemplifies the researched phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome. The Imposter Syndrome is defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” When individuals come to inhabit spaces where they find their own perspectives or experiences underrepresented or excluded, messages about their own belonging in these spaces carry incredible weight. Negative reception or experiences can naturally raise doubts about one’s identity and belonging in any place or group (for anyone). If an individual does not encounter narratives analogous to their own that exemplify successful outcomes in similar experiences, negative feedback becomes particularly damaging.

Overtly hostile expressions of unwelcomeness (such as racism) certainly attack one’s sense of identity and belonging, but more subtle or less malicious experiences can lead to similar doubts and feelings of exclusion. Likewise, microaggressions and implicit bias also serve to elevate or validate certain experiences and perspectives at the direct expense of others. All forms of exclusionary messaging threaten to drive talented, capable, passionate individuals out of good-fit institutions, careers, and fields of influence – and thus negatively impact the potential of our City and our society as a whole.

Statistics about underrepresentation in STEM fields are sobering. Data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed African-American and Latino students are much less likely to have access to Advanced Placement courses in STEM fields. Many students also say they don’t take AP courses due to a lack of confidence.

In the workplace, African-American and Latino workers represent 29 percent of the general workforce population, but just 16 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15 percent of the computing workforce and 12 percent of the engineering workforce – all rates that have remained essentially flat since 2001.

Women have seen no improvement in representation over the last 13 years. In 2014, women represented 24 percent of the engineering workforce (down from 25 percent in 2001), 36 percent of the computing workforce (flat since 2001) and 18 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce (down from 19 percent in 2001).              

‘There is unmet demand for STEM experiences outside of school. A 2014 survey of households found that 60 percent of black children and 57 percent of Latino children not currently enrolled in afterschool programs would be enrolled if such programs were available to them. That amounts to some 10 million children of color who are ripe for critical enrichment opportunities—and a critical chance to expand access to the best learning opportunities in STEM.’

– Afterschool Alliance, 2014.

STEM fields offer unprecedented and increasing opportunities for meaningful employment. Growth in STEM occupations outstrips jobs growth in the United States overall by more than 100%, and these jobs offer higher wages than their non-STEM corollaries (Langdon, et al., 2011). Yet the worldwide demand for college graduates prepared for careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is not being met. This is especially true in the United States, where many of our most promising youth do not pursue opportunities in these areas. In particular, women, minorities, low-income background, and first generation college students remain underrepresented in STEM and are more likely to leave or change majors from a STEM course of study (NCES STEM Attrition, 2014). This is a space of both great inequity and great opportunity. In direct response to this issue Illinois Tech Global Leaders Program empowers students to lead and serve, to explore STEM, and to pursue higher education.

Envisioning a Solution

latino teen with glasses looking through chainlink fence
Photo by Eric Joseph on Unsplash

One of the most important national resources in the 21st century and beyond will be talent: young people who are civically engaged, technologically literate, globally astute, and who possess the abilities to collaborate, innovate, and lead. The Global Leaders Program believes Chicago- area youth possess these skills, and we are cultivating the talent and capacity for innovation which exists in Chicago’s underserved populations, including those who come from low-income households, are first generation college-bound, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. Our program responds to the need recently addressed by the Illinois General Assembly that young people “acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives (HB 4025, 2016).” 

In a rapidly shifting world, scientific and technological literacy are increasingly central to creating innovative social change. GLP creates opportunities for high school students, primarily from CPS, to lead and serve their communities through STEM. In doing this, we help fill dual needs by providing under-resourced students with high-quality service-learning and by exposing underrepresented students to STEM careers and approaches. We are contributing to these objectives by cultivating the next generation of leaders and innovators.

GLP has given me opportunities that I could never have otherwise received… I have learned so much about myself and who I want to become. I have been exposed to fields and projects that I never knew that I loved, and I cherished every moment. – GLP Scholar

At GLP, we understand that the majority of our students who matriculate to higher education institutions and/or pursue careers in STEM fields will enter spaces where their backgrounds and identities are underrepresented (at least in the near-term), and will likely find themselves in a distinct minority. Intentional preparation and equipping sets up students to persist and thrive in such situations, even when their environment either explicitly or implicitly erodes a sense of belonging or challenges the narrative that they are bound for success in these spaces.

Preparation looks like honest, authentic examination of the current state of minority representation in various fields, and the validation of diverse experiences and approaches to problem-solving. Awareness is key to persistence, as it equips students with powerful counter-narratives to combat negative messaging about their own belonging. Persistence amidst difficulties and graduation with a college diploma – these are certainly key goals for our students, and the transformative potential of such accomplishments on lifetime income, life-expectancy, quality of life, and more is well documented. But the GLP community has determined to strive for even more for our youth. We have found that our Scholars move past a gritty, determined persistence to true thriving and innovation when they are equipped to lead and serve in their communities. Ultimately, GLP focuses chiefly on empowerment of our Scholars and their development as leaders, and fully believes in their abilities to achieve authentic progress in and for their communities and identities.

It may seem initially counterintuitive that a program, mission-driven to address underrepresentation in higher education and STEM fields would invest heavily in leadership development. However, this approach is transformative for individual Scholars, and also has the potential for systemic impact as well-equipped, diverse leaders revitalize industries and institutions from the inside and reinvest their talents and development in their own communities.

Emphasizing Leadership Development for students empowers them to move from ‘Imposter’ to ‘Leader’, from ‘Excluded’ to ‘Integral’, and from questioning their belonging to identifying as ‘Scholars,’ whose perspectives and experiences have intrinsic worth and contribute unique value to their chosen fields, and to the world at large.

“[GLP] taught me more about career paths in STEM that I may possibly want to pursue as well as what I need to get there. It has shown me that STEM can be used to help impact the world in a positive way, and I now consider that a future goal of mine.”

Imani, GLP 2015 alumna

Even as we work with our Scholars to develop skills and confidence as leaders, we simultaneously emphasize growth and development of their personal identities and empathy for experiences and perspectives different from their own. Without empathy and identity, leadership devolves rapidly into tyranny. Without leadership, empathy and identity in isolation may perpetuate inequalities and exacerbate the pain of continued oppression. Together, leadership, identity, and empathy represent empowerment derived from value and progress – not from demeaning or disadvantaging others. Empathetic, self-aware leaders persist in challenging (even oppositional) contexts, and expand the access of benefits and opportunities in their communities. Empowerment of diverse perspectives and individuals – and collaboration in diverse groups – sets the stage for unsurpassed innovation and creativity.

Exposure to a wide-range of options is key to empowering our Scholars to make informed decisions about college and career.  While we offer exploration and development opportunities across STEM fields, we have identified over time that our greatest successes come in the specific elements of technology and engineering, and that the core benefits derived from our program are inextricably related to our leadership-driven model. Regardless of which disciplines our Scholars end up studying or working in, expertise with technology will be integral to their success. Similarly, the problem-solving skills and familiarity with STEM approaches developed through our collaborative, engineering-inspired curriculum are widely applicable and in high demand.  After two years as a Scholar in GLP, our alumni are ready to identify and access the fields and pathways that fit them best, they have extensive experience applying Design Thinking to a diverse range of problems and situations, and they’re prepared to succeed in college and beyond.

Through an innovative, student-driven approach, GLP amplifies students’ voices, provides access and resources for students’ development and exploration, and develops authentic opportunities for students themselves to innovate and enact change. Our disruptive model acknowledges and affirms students’ unique, inherent capacity to unseat injustice and advocate for their best interests and rightful opportunities. The Global Leaders Program aims to serve as a catalyst for Chicago’s talented youth as they develop their interests in STEM fields, hone their unique leadership abilities, and take steps towards college and career. In addition, we believe our Scholars are better equipped to confront the reality of inequity, understand the inherent benefits offered by increased diversity, and exercise have developed resilience and efficacy that helps them persist in potentially difficult settings. Our Scholars leave the program poised for success in college and beyond, and we believe their success will drive long-term change in STEM and in the communities they ultimately serve. This work is vital to developing our city’s diverse talent pool and unlocking its potential for greater innovation.


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