Students in California’s East Bay Find Connection and Support Through MESA College Prep

When first taking over the role of Director for the CSU East Bay MESA College Prep Program in 2019, Janiene Langford was ambivalent about the culminating event that pitted teams from around the California East Bay against one another. She wanted students to support and nurture each other in a collaborative and fun environment and worried that the competitive environment would undermine those goals.

The MESA Day Preliminaries, which brings hundreds of middle and high school students to the CSU East Bay campus, is a big undertaking that was further complicated when the winds in the East Bay region of San Francisco began kicking up. One of the competitions was taking place outside and required machines designed by students to launch a hacky sack at a target – not an ideal process for inclement weather.

When Janiene walked outside to the area where the projects were being showcased, she saw that dozens of the students were holding hands and standing next to one another to form a human shield for the group that was presenting their work. “They were actually supporting one another,” she said. “And this was incredible.”

Janiene has had hundreds of other moving experiences in her nearly two-year tenure as the director of CSU East Bay’s MESA College Prep program, housed with the Institute for STEM Education. The College Prep program, frequently cited as a model for developing minoritized students’ skills and confidence in STEM, offers students support in college and career awareness and preparation, while building their confidence in Engineering Design Principles and providing professional development for credentialed teachers. Established in 1970, MESA serves more than 18,000 students across the State of California, and has programs in Arizona, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington State.

Janiene and her colleagues at the Institute for STEM Education and East Bay STEM Network learned about the STEM PUSH Network because of their work with the Bay Area STEM Network. Janiene has expressed excitement to participate and eager for the professional development opportunities that accompany the affiliation. Of note is learning how to use data in new and different ways, which has been one of the many values of the association with STEM PUSH. 

In addition, the process mapping exercise with STEM PUSH helped highlight some of the gaps in the CSU East Bay MESA Center’s programming, she said. “It laid out what our program was missing. We are serving different communities – but looking at the data we see – our high school students are doing very well academically. Then I look at our middle school students and many of them are struggling academically. So the question that we’re asking is, does it mean that MESA is helping students improve as they transition to high school? Or are the students who are struggling dropping out of MESA? The Network has pushed our Center to have better tracking and metrics for our student successes and struggles,” she explained.

She said the process mapping work is helping inspire connections to other programs as well and, while she is happy about the connections to others and strategies for improving their work, for Janiene, it all comes down to being able to do work that positively impacts students.

She recounted a time when a student became very upset after a bridge that she had constructed failed. Janiene tried to comfort the student, but her words paled in comparison to the compassion that another student showed. “Her partner talked to her and calmed her down and it was amazing to see. These students support each other and there’s no better feeling than knowing that you’ve done something to help fuel that connection and growth,” she said.

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