May 13, 2016
The first cohort of students from Susquehanna University's Broadening Intensive Opportunities for Scholarship (BIOS) program was among the nearly 500 students who graduated during commencement on May 15.
Funded in 2012 with a $600,000 S-STEM (Scholarships-Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) grant from the National Science Foundation, Susquehanna's STEM-BIOS program provides financial support to academically qualified biology students who have been historically underrepresented in the sciences.
One of those students is Ayanna Besson, of Rockville Centre, N.Y. Besson grew up in a one-parent household after the death of her mother when Besson was only 9 years old. She said she hopes her degree is an inspiration for her 15-year-old brother.
"After my mother died, much of the responsibility was placed on me to pick up the slack," Besson said. "As a result, my success is paving the way for my little brother. That's why I put my all into what I do because most of what I'm doing is for him."
The cohort model provides students with a support system through their four years at Susquehanna and is intended to lead to stronger retention of biology majors, especially students of color, first-generation college students and those from geographic regions underrepresented at Susquehanna.
Tom Peeler, associate professor of biology and the first cohort's academic advisor, said the model has been successful. Susquehanna's first cohort is graduating with a retention rate of 81 percent, compared with the 40 percent retention typical of biology majors. Two additional STEM cohorts will graduate in 2017 and 2018.
"It's been a real eye-opening experience," Peeler said. "And a rewarding one."
In addition to financial support, graduating students within the cohort experienced a special summer orientation, intensive faculty advising, career mentoring, field trips and opportunities for research and internships.
"The cohort got me through my four years here," Besson said. "Being a biology major is difficult and some of the friends I've made within the cohort have motivated me to continue to push through."
Amanda Abrams, of Tannersville, Pa., will also graduate this weekend and credited the cohort model.
"I had the opportunity to meet many of the professors at Susquehanna before having them in class, and many of them I have a great relationship with," Abrams said. "In addition, I was able to make multiple friends during the beginning days at Susquehanna."
She, and Besson, acknowledged Peeler for his guidance, calling him a "father figure" within the biology department.
"I not only see him as a professor, but a confidant," Abrams said. "I know that I can come to him with any issue, and trust that he will help me without judgement."
Abrams is currently interviewing for a research position, and Besson has plans to earn a master's degree and PhD in public health to research HIV and other infectious diseases.
The following cohort members will also graduate this weekend: Naadirah Custis, of Philadelphia, Pa.; Desmond Edwards, of Yankton, S.D.; Whitney Frederic, of Coatesville, Pa.; Ebone Garrett, of Reading, Pa.; Cynthia Mentch, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.; Alexandria Scharadin, of Harrisburg, Pa.; and Victoria Warren, of Philadelphia, Pa.