The program will pair high school and college students in what’s called a “near peer” model to help ease the minority participants into the mentorship.

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This story was originally published by The Daily Yonder.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Texas State University a grant to mentor underrepresented students in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences degrees and careers within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community.

The three year, $100,000 program will focus specifically on Black and Latina women, said Merritt Drewery, an assistant professor at Texas State University in the Department of Agricultural Sciences and project director. 

“The grant is called Mentorship and Promotion of Women in Agriculture. We're calling it MPOWA for short,” she said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “What this does is pairs our college students who are Latina or Black women with high school students from similar demographics and backgrounds. Specifically, we're hoping the high school students are from rural areas.”

Black and Latina women are underrepresented in agriculture, both as agriculture degree recipients and in the workforce, Drewery said. 

“So among degree recipients, if you look, there are far fewer Black and Latina women receiving bachelors, masters and PhDs in agriculture, and in all science disciplines,” she said. “That's why we're prioritizing them. And why we are prioritizing rural areas is because that is a big mission of the USDA, just to ensure that quality of life and economic prosperity is equitable, and accessible for students and people who live in rural communities.”

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The program will use a technique called near-peer mentoring, she said. 

“Instead of traditional mentorship, where maybe myself who is a faculty member would be paired with a high school girl, we are pairing them with a near peer, which in this case, would be an undergraduate student,” Drewery said. “And the thought is that, because our target population are Latina and Black girls, receiving traditional mentorship may be intimidating or ineffective.”

She added that previous data shows that near-peer mentorship is a more effective way to build confidence and build identity within a given field. 

[Read more: An Illinois bill aims to counteract a decades-long trend: The decline of the Black farmer]

Over the course of three years the program will recruit 20 high school students from underrepresented populations and place them in one-semester near-peer mentoring relationships with Texas State undergraduates from similar backgrounds. Undergraduate mentors provide high school mentees psychosocial and academic support. Traditional mentorship is also provided through faculty-high school student meetings and STEM professionals give seminars to students. The research team will collect data on changes in attitude, behavior and action

The first cohort will be recruited later this year, with a start date in January 2023, Drewery said. 

She said that she is currently looking for professional Black and Latina women who would like to offer seminar workshops to the students.

“We're really excited to get started,” she added. 

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Top image: photo by Darrell Hoemann, Investigate Midwest