If Evans Afenya had any doubt about the impact the Elmhurst College Summer Academy for Mathematics and Science has had on its hundreds of alumni, he need only have considered some of the former students who came to campus in July to celebrate the academy’s 20th anniversary.
Afenya, a professor of mathematics at Elmhurst, founded the academy in 1995 to offer high school students an early introduction to college work in math and science, strengthening their skills and preparing them for success in college. It is particularly focused on serving young women and minorities, groups that tend to be underrepresented in undergraduate math and science majors.
As part of the academy’s anniversary observation, current students had the chance to meet alumni who have gone on to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, including Dr. Stephen Rudawski, a downstate specialist in osteopathic manipulative therapy, and Alicia Foxx, a doctoral student in plant biology at Northwestern University. Both are graduates of Elmhurst College as well as the academy.
“Applying to the program definitely turned out to be a very good thing for me,” said Foxx, who was steered toward the program by one of her teachers at Proviso East High School in Maywood. “I’m the first in my family to go to college, and I really didn’t know what college was all about. The program gave me a taste of college work. It made me feel like I was ready for the challenge.”
The academy gives high school students a short but intense taste of college life. For 10 days, they live on campus and take classes in math, biology, chemistry, computer science, psychology and other subjects, all taught by more than a dozen Elmhurst College faculty. Students attend classes and study sessions each day, then find time for homework in the evenings. The rigorous program has won endorsements from educators and administrators at the Chicago Public Schools and support from the Associated Colleges of Illinois.
“We try to show these students that they can succeed academically and professionally,” Afenya said. “Too many students think they can’t do this work. But we tell them that they if they persist at it, they can get where they want to go.”
When Afenya launched the academy it was focused exclusively on math, and students commuted to and from campus each day. Ten students enrolled in the program in its first year. The academy has since expanded to give students a fuller experience of college life. Living on campus, they experience some of the rhythms of a day of coursework, studying and socializing, and they learn to manage their time. This year, 25 students from 15 area high schools enrolled in the academy.
As enrollment grew, Afenya enlisted the help of Elmhurst undergraduates to serve as mentors to the high school students. They help the younger students navigate the campus, see that everyone makes it to the dining hall for breakfast, and provide tutoring. Many of the mentors are themselves alumni of the academy.
Foxx served as a mentor during her time at Elmhurst. She said that the guidance provided by Elmhurst professors and students is key to the success of the high school students enrolled in the academy.
“Some of the students come to the academy knowing that they are college-bound, but others really struggle,” she said. “But they get lots of support, and it’s amazing to see how much they change in two weeks. They really do make a lot of progress.”
Foxx and the other alumni who returned to campus this summer answered questions from the academy students about professional life and graduate school. Foxx told them about her doctoral research at Northwestern and offered advice about how to succeed in college and beyond.
“I told them that it was so important to take advantage of your opportunities,” she said. “You have to say ‘yes’ to things.”
For Afenya, the achievements of alumni like Foxx are evidence of the role the academy plays in developing young minds.
“It’s gratifying to know that we have affected these students so positively,” he said. “It never occurred to me that we would go on this long. We have just taken it one day at a time.”