It’s Not About Money Alone: Helping Low-Income STEM Students Soar

Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the LSU College of Science, recently secured $998,837 from the National Science Foundation’s program Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or S-STEM. The project, Scholarship Opportunities Aimed at Retaining Science Scholars, or SOARS, is designed to support economically-disadvantaged, academically talented students as they enter into undergraduate courses in the College of Science through both scholarships and mentorships over the next five years:


Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy

Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy


“The S-STEM program is amazing. Through this program, the NSF provides universities with funds to develop support systems for students. SOARS scholars will receive need-based scholarships of $7,800 per student per academic year. Their recruitment and selection will be based on residency, financial need, GPA, statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and an interview—a holistic approach designed to target students with a passion for pursuing a career in science.

“For low-income students, scholarships alone are not enough! Given that a student’s academic performance, the quality of the educational experience through student engagement, and a student’s overall integration into the academic and social cultures are factors that contribute to student persistence and success, institutional supports are vital to retaining low-income students. Consequently, it’s critically important to develop support systems to help guide their development.

“SOARS will engage current faculty members in the College of Science to act as mentors. We don’t want our low-income students to just survive the experience. We want them to thrive! Many national studies have shown that economically disadvantaged students leave college at higher rates than their more affluent peers, and time is a critical element. Students who have work obligations and other kinds of responsibilities outside their studies can end up in a debilitating situation. You can imagine being in a rigorous academic program while also working long hours to cover living expenses for yourself and a family, how that easily becomes a cycle of never having enough time and energy to be successful—not because of a lack of talent and potential, but because of circumstance. Also, disadvantaged students do not always have the social capital and agency to navigate a university and the knowledge to access opportunities that are critical in preparing for a STEM career. You can give scholarship to students, but they may still not be able to take advantage of vital opportunities. This is why the project we designed is focused on bringing in students at the freshman level, supporting them in the very crucial first year, and building out a four-year program of support to help them get to graduation. S-STEM scholars will receive much more than a scholarship; they will participate in a system of support designed specifically to cultivate their talents and potential.

“Also, the SOARS project continues a legacy of S-STEM projects at LSU. Isiah Warner, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, was the principal investigator of a prior S-STEM project that supported College of Science students, and I was a co-PI on his award. I am so honored to now serve as principal investigator on this new award for low-income students, a group historically underrepresented in STEM.”


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development