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Engineering : For Good

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USF ranks in top 10 public universities for Pell Grant experience

Minh Duong Dinh, known as Duong around the University of South Florida’s main campus, received one of 7,000+ degrees bestowed by the Tampa university this May. At a time when many take on huge loans for the opportunity, he made it through with very little debt. It is also notable that he is the first in his family to attend college.

Thanks in part to the federal Pell Grant program, the Honors College student graduated with a Bachelor’s in Science degree in Chemical Engineering, with a minor in Biomedical Engineering.

USF has a lot of resources for students, to help students succeed on the first try,” says Dinh, who moved from Cape Coral to Tampa to attend USF in fall 2014.

Bright Futures scholarships are a big boon to those who qualify, like Dinh, yet making it to graduation day is not always easy. Statistically, only 67 percent of non-Pell students make it, according to the Washington, D.C., think tank, Third Way.  And for Pell Grant recipients nationwide, it’s even harder.

Most four-year colleges don’t do a very good job of helping Pell students, Third Way says. But USF is attracting national attention as a place where minorities and students from low- to middle-income families have a greater chance of success.

USF’s main campus ranked ninth in the top 10 “high quality” Pell-serving public universities nationwide, in Third Way’s newly-issued report. That is after seven University of California campuses, for graduating larger percentages of Pell Grant recipients.

USF graduated 68 percent, or 1,242 of its 1,824 recipients, while UCLA graduated 88 percent. That is one percent higher than the national average for non-Pell students and 19 points higher than the Pell national average of 49 percent.

The numbers include first-time, full-time Pell students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees (at the institutions they enrolled in) within six years. Calculations were based on students who entered college in 2010.

High-quality institutions serve a large number of Pell students, in USF’s case 41 percent, and help them graduate at least half of the time. The federal government pumps some $30 billion into the program annually to increase access to higher education -- and the money does not need to be repaid.

In December, Education Trust recognized USF as the top public university in the nation for Latino success -- and the fourth top university overall. The graduation rate for whites was 65.5 percent in 2013, 2014 and 2015, 0.6 percent less than the Latino rate of 66.2 percent. In March 2017, the Education Trust rated USF tops in Florida and sixth in the nation for its graduation completion rate among blacks, with a rate of 63.7 percent for 2012, 2013 and 2014. The national average was 40.9 percent.

Helping students succeed at USF is part of Dr. Paul Dosal’s job description. As Vice President for Student Affairs and Student Success, he oversees the university’s mission to help students when the inevitable obstacles to graduation occur -- whether it’s a personal problem, an academic challenge, or a financial hardship.

“My assignment is to promote the success of all of our undergraduate students,” he says.

At the core of his efforts is the belief that every student admitted to USF can graduate. “We treat them all the same,” he says. “We think they all have what it takes to earn the degree of their choice in a timely way. We approach our effort in a way that’s positive.”

Help comes in different forms. It can be through the Bull 2 Bull Financial Education Program, which helps them regulate finances, or through tutoring, or through coaches that help them with homesickness, stress or a romantic loss. From the freshman year, when they complete an online survey that helps put them on a career path, to the Don’t Stop, Don’t Drop! program that pays an outstanding library fine keeping a student from graduating, the Student Success program steps in to resolve what otherwise might be an unresolvable problem.

“It’s a small investment from our perspective and it has a powerful impact,” Dosal says of the emergency funding program.

While it doesn’t cover more extensive financial problems like a shortage of money to pay the last semester’s tuition, other help is available. “If a student appears to be in financial distress,” he says, “we’re also willing to step in and help out.”

Some of the ways USF assists student achievement are unusual and innovative. It is particularly committed to students that have “high ability” and “high need,” he explains.

Even with a Bright Futures scholarship, there still are other fees and book costs. “We can cover those students so they can get through here tuition-free,” he says.

In general, USF is committed to diversity, as the numbers attest. “We believe that our students will benefit from a diverse campus climate,” he says. “We recognize the educational benefits of diversity first and foremost. In order to prepare our students to compete and succeed ... our campus should look like the world.”

In fall 2017, 48.4 percent of undergraduate students on the main campus were white, compared with 20.8 percent Hispanic and 10.4 percent black. Some 6.3 percent of the 30,883 students were non-residents.

Dinh calls USF’s ranking a “remarkable achievement.”  “I found USF to be really accommodating,” says the European-born Dinh, who is of Vietnamese descent. “I really felt, still feel at home at USF.”

After USF offered him the best financial aid package, academic advisors helped keep him on track. He also received support from professional organizations on campus, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.

So what’s next for the graduate? Job hunting. He’s in Tampa, but he’s willing to relocate for an opportunity in the field of chemical engineering. At some point, he plans to return to school to earn a master’s degree.

As a college graduate, the 22-year-old has taken a big step away from the family’s traditional careers in manual labor. And he offers encouragement to his 14-year-old brother John, who’s already asking what courses can prepare him for college.

“He seems to be inclined to do engineering,” Dinh says. “What I did definitely made an impact.”


For Good: Ex-offenders to build tiny homes with Big Idea Grant funds

An established, ex-offender re-entry organization, looking to build tiny homes in South St. Petersburg, has won a $50,000 Big Idea Grant awarded by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.

The Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition won the award for its Second Chance Tiny House Manufacturing Company, which will train people coming out of jails and prisons for construction jobs, says Wilma Norton, the Foundation’s VP of Marketing and Communications.

There were 31 applications for the award that promotes self sufficiency. It is the second time the Community Foundation has offered the grant.

They’ve got partnerships with a host of people and a revenue stream to pay for the continuing cost of operation, but they need startup costs,” Norton says of PERC, which plans to build and sell tiny houses to private citizens and local government.

Michael Jalazo, PERC’s CEO/Executive Director, says the organization was “grateful and humble” to receive the award. He expects to have the first tiny house up by June.

“We’d like to see the tiny house movement take off,” he adds.

With the grant, Jalazo is looking to build at least eight tiny homes on land cleared by abandoned and condemned homes, most of them in South St. Petersburg. It is prepared to “ramp up” efforts and build even more as funds are available, he says.

In the process, he hopes to keep the ex-offenders out of jail and prison, while providing homes for the homeless.

PERC already has been given housing plans. It also has scoped out a possible location for construction: the old Lealman Fire Station.

Big Idea Grant finalists were Arriba Transportation, proposed by Enterprising Latinas of Wimauma, and Evergreen Life Services, which proposed to teach basic skills to the disabled through virtual-reality technology.

The foundation will continue to work with the finalists and other applicants to gain funding, Norton says.

In 2015, two donors came up with an extra $50,000 apiece so three non-profits could proceed with their projects.

Arriba Transportation is seeking to provide six bus routes, seven days a week, to the Wimauma/Ruskin area using 15-seat vans. Its goal is to take riders to work and school, as well as connecting them to a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) bus route.

“We know instances where people have paid $200 to go to the Mexican Counselate in Orlando. ...” says Liz Gutierrez, the organization’s Founder and CEO. “People in this community pay $65 to get to Tampa General. We can change that.”

Evergreen Life Services offers a variety of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Its social enterprise, HEAVENDROPt, is located in St. Petersburg, where it creates new products with parachutes used by U.S. veterans.


For Good: MOSI helps at-risk youth with STEAM partnership

A new program at MOSI will help at-risk youth develop skills needed for STEAM careers.

The program, which will begin this fall, is referred to as STEAM E4, with the STEAM referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. The four E’s are: exposure, exploration, education and employment. Middle and high school students, as well as some adults, will come to MOSI for a variety of hands-on educational experiences designed to help them develop and hone skills and become workforce-ready.

Workshops on astronomy and space exploration will be provided in MOSI’s existing Mission Moonbase, a simulated lunar base where participants learn through immersion. The Ideazone will serve as an area for hands-on education in digital and video game design and robotics.

The pilot program is a major component of MOSI Technical Institute (MTI), which aims to identify and fulfill gaps within the local workforce to ultimately connect people with jobs.

"We’re focusing on project-based activities that increase their skills set and focus on the jobs of the future," says Molly Demeulenaere, interim-president and CEO of MOSI. "People think museums are these quiet spaces where you don’t touch anything, but science centers and MOSI in particular are a hub of education and activity."

The program also includes a research component, where MOSI will continually monitor progress to determine how to eventually replicate it across the nation.

The project is a collaboration between MOSI and Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa (CDC), a nonprofit that focuses on alleviating poverty in east Tampa through programs such as job training, housing and rehabilitation. Rather than starting from scratch to identify the students who are most in need, MOSI decided to partner with the CDC who already had the students and help them fill a gap. "It’s about going to where the people are," says Demeulenaere.

The program is funded by a $149,600 grant recently received from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS). The prestigious and highly competitive grant program helps museums and libraries further innovation and lifelong learning.
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