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Student in biology lab

STEM program sees growth

Growth in Yakima Valley College’s STEM program is providing additional opportunities for students in the Yakima Valley. Through new positions, grant funding, cross-campus collaborations and support for externships, YVC students are continuing to shine.

Investment in New Positions

Over the past year YVC has invested in new positions and resources to help support student success. With the help of grant funding a new STEM director, navigators and assistants have joined the staff — all with the same goal, supporting students’ aspirations and increasing the number of students who earn a bachelor’s degree or beyond.

“YVC is investing in new student support positions called navigators,” shared Interim STEM Director Cristy Rasmussen. “These positions go beyond just helping students navigate college, it’s also about building rapport with our students. When you are in such a new environment, as college is for many of our students, these positions provide them with a support system and someone to encourage them.”


For several years, YVC has participated as one of 11 community colleges in Washington state that offers the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Community College Program. The program works to increase the number of community college students who successfully transfer to four-year institutions and earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors.

​​At the onset of the pandemic, enrollment in MESA at YVC and other colleges experienced a significant decline in participation.

To reverse that trend, YVC’s STEM team ramped up its outreach efforts and focus on providing educational support services and professional development experiences to assist students in achieving their academic goals.

The program immediately saw the effects of these efforts. As of May, participation in YVC’s program had grown by over 500% since the beginning of Fall 2021. Rasmussen shared the struggle of recruitment in the MESA and STEM programs during the pandemic and how a new approach helped reverse the drop in enrollment.

“In STEM we meet students where they are at and take a multimodal approach to reaching out and staying connected with them that includes text messages, phone calls and emails,” Rasmussen said. “I will also walk around and talk to students while on my break to help increase the personal connection with students.”

Student Patzy Villagrana was able to make valuable connections through YVC’s STEM and MESA programs that she feels are crucial to their future. Villagrana, graduated this June from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“The YVC STEM Program prepared me in so many ways,” said Villagrana. “The workshops we had helped make my application essays to a 4-year university more competitive. They also helped improve my resume which got me a research opportunity last summer. I also got better at time management and became more confident in seeking resources.

“But most importantly, I got to meet other students in STEM. This was the best part because I saw how many of us had the same goal in mind but approached it differently. We also helped each other out since most of us were in the same classes. I think making connections in STEM is so important and necessary.”

Cross Campus Collaboration

Another recent initiative that is paying dividends for both STEM and other students is a more collaborative approach to communicating available resources such as grants and scholarships, tutoring, learning opportunities outside the classroom and other student support services. Representatives from the STEM, Upward Bound, College Assistance Migrant Program and TRIO programs have partnered to help ensure YVC students are taking advantage of those resources.

“We have several amazing support programs on YVC campus like Upward Bound, TRIO, MESA and CAMP,” said Rasmussen. “When we collaborate the students benefit, we achieve budget collaboration, shared contacts and connections to help students maximize their potential. I have already learned so much and found these connections very helpful.”


The increase in resources and new initiatives by the STEM program have helped students’ complete applications for and succeed in obtaining opportunities to continue their learning outside of the classroom. This spring student three YVC students earned prestigious externships at Syracuse University, the Department of Energy and NASA, competing against a nation-wide pool of students.

Franciso Flores

Fancisco Flores
Francisco Flores

Flores will participate in the 2022 Syracuse University Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Summer Research Project. The 10-week summer residential experience is dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented students graduating with baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields. Flores is only the second student from Washington state to participate in the program, which selects approximately 14 students annually from across the nation.

The LSAMP Research Program is a paid summer research opportunity that provides undergraduate scholars the opportunity to work with distinguished faculty and staff as well as network with others in their field of interest.

“I am grateful to be allowed to work alongside other scholars who share the same interest as I do,” Flores said. “I believe this experience will help me develop my problem-solving skills and furthermore strengthen my interest in engineering.”

Student scholars have the opportunity to conduct and present research under the direction of a faculty research mentor at Syracuse University. Through this program, scholars gain theoretical knowledge and practical training in academic research and scientific experimentation.

Flores will participate in research focused on aerospace engineering.

“I have an aspiration to be an engineer in aerospace and to be involved in technological innovations,” he said. “I esteem being able to use new ideas for innovation from which others can benefit. I want to work in an environment where I can apply science and mathematics to solve problems to exploratory questions.”

“Francisco is a student highly focused on succeeding,” said Rasmussen. “I am glad that the STEM program is able to support whatever his dreams are academically and match him to opportunities and resources. I know he will thrive in an environment where he is challenged and mentored. I have no doubt Francisco will be a great engineer one day solving complex problems.”

In addition to working with a faculty research team, Flores will participate in professional development workshops and community building activities. Students also earn a $4,000 stipend for participation and free room and board.

The project is a partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Carlos Trejo

Carlos Trejo
Carlos Trejo and his mother

Trejo will participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Community College Internships (CCI) program for the Summer 2022 Term.

The CCI program encourages community college students to enter technical careers relevant to the department’s mission by providing technical training experiences at department laboratories. Trejo will work at the General Atomics / DIII-D facility located in San Diego.

Students in the program, like Trejo, work on technologies, instrumentation projects, or major research facilities under the guidance of laboratory staff scientists or engineers.

“I’m looking forward to working at one of the top research facilities in the country,” said Trejo. “I await the opportunity to be able to expand my network and work alongside mentors and students that share the same passion I do. I’m extremely grateful for programs such as CCI that allow community college students the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research and internships.”

The highly competitive program allows students to do work on a technical project with some of the most talented scientists and engineers in the world.

“Carlos has worked very hard over the last few years and taken advantage of the support offered in the STEM program,” Rasmussen said. “He has participated in a NASA program, Summer Undergraduate Research and this year has been accepted into a research opportunity in San Diego. It’s incredible to see all his hard work acknowledged and he is another student that will have an impact in our world.”

Charlene Luna

Charlene Luna
Charlene Luna

Luna was recently selected to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program.

Selected students learn more about NASA’s missions and careers in science and engineering throughout the virtual experience. Students form teams and design a mission to explore the Moon or Mars. Each student team joins a design team, fulfills a team role, manages a budget and develops communication and outreach strategies. Students also attend events hosted by NASA subject matter experts, receive information on how to apply for NASA internships and virtually tour NASA’s unique facilities.

Luna has strived to challenge herself, often taking advanced courses while in high school, as she’s prepared to transfer to a university and continue her education after YVC.

“I have been taking courses to get closer to receiving my degree from a university as well as participating in undergraduate research opportunities,” said Luna, noting how difficult it can be to navigate resources while being a low-income, first-generation student.

“Being accepted into the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar (NCAS) program makes me realize that regardless of your background, it does not determine or limit your success,” she said. “Being accepted into this program means there are more opportunities out there for students like me.”

Luna will continue her education in the fall at Washington State University.

“Charlene is a student you always enjoy seeing on campus, I often find her studying and she is always smiling,” said Rasmussen. “She is driven and yet balanced. Charlene manages her time well to accommodate both her high school activities and YVC campus life. She is going to do very well on the WSU campus in fall.”

Student Success

Several students have used YVC’s program as a springboard for success, transferring to four-year colleges and universities. With the goal of becoming a doctor, Annette Figueroa is one of these students. Figuerora shares how important the STEM program has been to her success.

“The STEM program at Yakima Valley College has been amazing, it’s offered me lots of opportunities,” said Figuerora. “It’s helped me build leadership skills. Through undergraduate research I was able to get in the lab and develop skills such as teamwork.”

She also shares how impactful her instructors have been in pushing her to succeed.

“I’ve had really great instructors that have really helped deepen my interest in STEM,” said Figueroa. “They have really challenged me and pushed me which has gained confidence in me because I made it through these classes, I passed these classes, and I feel really proud of myself.”

Figueroa graduates this June and will continue her education next fall at UCLA. As a recipient of The Gates Scholarship, her tuition will be fully covered.

Additional recent success stories include Cameron Bundy, who recently accepted a full-ride scholarship to attend a Ph.D. program at Rochester Institute of Technology; Brendon DeRuyter, accepted into veterinary school at Washington State University; Oluyemisi Akinbade, finishing her third year of pharmacy school at Washington State University on the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences campus; Ashley Rison, completing her second year of medical school at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine; Cynthia Acevedo, finishing her master of arts in medical sciences in advance of attending medical school at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences; and Luke Sharif, completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and preparing for The Medical College Admission Test. Alumni Yoni Rodriguez ’17 recently was hired to work at NASA after earning a master’s degree from the University of Washington.