Shamika Murray ’14 was a high-achieving science student from a big public high school in Philadelphia. But soon after arriving on Mayflower Hill she learned that Colby academics were at a whole new level. “I had a really tough freshman year,” she said. “Academically, I wasn’t ready for the workload. It was nothing like my high school. I probably only made it through because of CAPS.”
CAPS scholars Alaba Sotayo ’14 and Benji Benjamin ’14 work in the laboratory in the Arey Life Sciences Building during Jan Plan.
A Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences (CAPS) scholar, Murray spoke from Australia, where she was spending a semester abroad last fall. The psychology-neuroscience major does laboratory research at Colby on addiction and plans to go to graduate school in psychology. But Murray remembers vividly the nervous student of four years ago—and now makes sure to dispense advice to younger CAPS scholars. “I tell them, ‘This is going to get better. You’re going to get used to this. It’s okay,’” Murray said.
It’s been more than okay for participants in CAPS, which for the past four years has given selected students from underrepresented groups a jump start in the sciences—and now is seeing its first class approach graduation. Crafted by Colby faculty members and funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the program is aimed at keeping students like Murray in the laboratory, which in the past they’d fled in droves. Often underprepared in math skills, many struggled in science gateway courses, especially chemistry. And when they looked around and saw few minority students in their science classrooms, they felt they didn’t belong and left.
CAPS, says codirector Andrea Tilden, the J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology, “has been the most successful diversity initiative Colby has ever tried.”
The intent is to remove obstacles that have historically kept minority students from succeeding in sciences, especially rigorous study in chemistry and biology. “This is a national problem,” said Charles Terrell ’70, whose career was spent working to increase diversity in the nation’s medical schools (see sidebar).
Colby, by all accounts, has found a fix.
“What Colby has done I believe is extraordinary to a great degree. It may even be revolutionary.”
– Charles Terrell ’70
The summer before their first year, CAPS scholars come to Mayflower Hill for six weeks of work in the classroom and the laboratory. Once classes begin, CAPS students have a ready-made group of science-leaning friends, connections to faculty, and enough momentum to carry them through the most difficult stages of the science majors. Grant funds are available for summer research jobs on campus or off.
“I had come in knowing I was going to do chemistry, and this whole process, this support system, helped me stick with it,” said Courtney McIntosh-Peters ’14. “I just kept going. Head down.”
And while CAPS students kept their heads in their books, the numbers went up. In the 25-year period leading up to CAPS there were just 43 African-American and Latino/Latina science majors, Tilden said. This year alone there are 86 science majors among African-American, Latino/Latina, and Native American students at Colby. The science grade point average for students of color before CAPS was 1.8. The science GPA for current students of color is 2.7 and climbing.
Pre-CAPS, “students were just not feeling that they belonged in the sciences,” Tilden said. “And when they did start to struggle, as nearly all first-year students do, instead of coming to us for help, they felt more or less alone and isolated.”
That’s no longer the case, and the results were evident with the first class. “It was really successful right from the start,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry and program codirector Jeffrey Katz.
CAPS 1, as the first group is called, began with 13 students. One student withdrew for personal reasons. Of the remaining, 10 have majored in a science (including a religious studies double major), one in sociology, and another in human development—and several said CAPS has been the key to their academic and general success. “I think it gave me a good running start and the foundation I needed to get to that next level,” said Kristen Robinson ’14, a chemistry-biochemistry and religious studies double major who is weighing a career in public health or pharmacy.
Not only do CAPS scholars have faculty mentors and a solid group of science-oriented friends, but they are go-to students for others who are looking for tips on how to cope. Murray advises non-CAPS students to find what she has: a solid support system of students and professors. “You can always come talk to them,” she said.
That plan worked for the CAPS 1 group, still close four years after their first summer on campus. “We know we can depend on each other,” Robinson said. “It’s like a little family.”
Added Ebunoluwa “Benji” Benjamin ’14, “Everyone struggles at Colby … and it takes time to find your niche. We had each other to lean on.”
The group still eats dinner together, meets for lunch, studies together in the science buildings. According to Tilden, they’ve drawn other students to them. “It’s international students. It’s students of color who were not in CAPS. You see students working together in ways that we’ve always wanted to see our students do.”
If students do leave the sciences, it isn’t because they don’t feel welcome or comfortable, she said. “They just found something they loved more.”
Most have found a niche in science, though. For Benjamin, it’s microbiology and public health, which she studies with Professor Frank Fekete.
Benjamin, who is from New Jersey and studied in Cork, Ireland, said she sorely missed her CAPS 1 friends and science professors when she was abroad. “Relationships I’ve built with people in CAPS,” she said, “are something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
Science Faculty Finds a Solution
Charles Terrell ’70 spent his career working to “change the face of medicine to reflect the face of America.” A Colby trustee who formerly worked in minority recruitment at Boston University Medical School and the Association of American Medical Colleges, Terrell says the Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences (CAPS) is, in fact, changing the face of science.
“What Colby has done I believe is extraordinary to a great degree,” he said. “It may even be revolutionary.”
The formidable task is to change the climate in the sciences in American higher education, which Terrell says is often not welcoming to students from underrepresented groups. Many of those African-American, Latino, and Native American students have been prepared in school systems where science resources are inadequate. “On top of being college-ready, being able and prepared to work in the sciences is yet another hurdle for underrepresented groups,” Terrell said.
Even for those who excel in high school, challenges remain, he said, with stereotypes that tell them they won’t succeed and few role models to show otherwise.
Colby’s science faculty has come up with a solution, he said, with professors committing time and energy to solving a problem that many institutions have addressed with far less success.
“To find the kind of faculty openness that the Colby science faculty is providing is absolutely unheard of,” Terrell said.
Colby Donor Funds CAPS for Five More Years
The CAPS 1 scholars’ experience will be available for incoming students, thanks to a private donor who has funded the program as the HHMI grant has ended. This news was embraced by present CAPS program participants, including seniors and juniors who actually discussed sharing some of their internship and research funding if it would help the program continue. Their generous gesture, which proved unnecessary, said a lot about CAPS participation. “Other students,” said Ebunoluwa “Benji” Benjamin ’14, “will experience the same joy that my CAPS students bring to me.”