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Program alumna pays it forward by helping new students learn to SURF

A Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship propelled Andrea Coto into STEM. Now a Stanford PhD student, she encourages undergraduates to apply for the program that helped her.
Clockwise from left: SURF alumni Andrea Coto, Wrayzene Willoughby, Marigold Malinao, and Alana Sanchez, urge undergrads to see themselves at Stanford.

It wasn’t easy for STEM student Andrea Coto to find her path to graduate school.

Three years ago the first-generation college student raised in El Salvador was trying to decide if she should pursue research and her doctorate, but had few role models to help her with that decision.

Then in 2018, Coto joined Stanford Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. The initiative is designed to support students like Coto, who are interested in graduate studies and academic careers, but who have limited access to research university programs, may be the first in their family to pursue an advanced degree, or are from communities systemically minoritized in STEM.

Today, after a SURF experience that included hands-on lab research, a GRE preparation course, professional development workshops and social excursions with her cohort, Coto is flourishing as a new PhD student in sustainable design and construction at Stanford and has returned to the SURF program as a mentor to help other students answer their own questions.

Coto says she wouldn’t be in graduate school if it wasn’t for the SURF program. “What really helped in my journey was getting a chance to be exposed to this community, and finding that I belonged somewhere,” she says. “That’s what the SURF program gave me, and it’s what I try to bring to the program as a mentor. Not just my own experience, but the other stories I know of people who were the first ones in their families to attend graduate school.”

“I want to help expose other students to this environment, to share my own experience with them and to really try to tell them the truth about graduate school,” she adds. “I want to close that circle and give back what I received here.”

Fostering a sense of belonging

The eight-week SURF program exposes participants to every aspect of the graduate school experience, with a particular emphasis on building a tight-knit community of students, educators and returning SURF mentors. For many of these students, it may be the first time they’ve been able to see themselves or their communities reflected in academia, says Ngoc Tran, who oversees SURF as the assistant director of equity and inclusion at Stanford Engineering.

“Having graduate students like Andrea return to serve as peer mentors is critical to the program’s success, as is fostering a sense of belonging,” Tran says. “We bring together students with a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds, which allows them to really delve into research and every other aspect of the SURF experience, and helps to mitigate the isolation and marginalization many of these students have experienced.”

Program impact at Stanford and beyond

The results of surveys conducted by the program’s team are evidence of its success, Tran says. A 2020 SURF survey taken before and after the program reported overall student confidence in the ability to succeed in graduate school rose by 38%. Students also reported an average increase of 33% in confidence in their technical skills, with some areas showing even more improvement. Confidence in the ability to write a successful fellowship and grant application, for example, jumped an average of 82% post-SURF.

What’s more, the program’s alums have gone on to graduate programs around the country, including Carnegie Mellon and Purdue universities and the University of California, Berkeley. Many students, such as Maisy Lam, a 2020 SURF scholar, are also National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows. Lam, an electrical engineering major from the University of Miami, will be heading to a PhD program at MIT in the fall, along with SURF alumnae Annika Thomas and Jovana Kondic.

Tran says she is thrilled to see the students succeed, whether they come to Stanford or pursue their graduate degrees elsewhere. “Society often holds limiting expectations for students from structurally underinvested communities, and a distorted image of who belongs in academia,” she says. “These students’ success beyond the SURF program demonstrates how inaccurate those perceptions are, and the importance of investing in outreach programs that help them find value at Stanford, when any school would be lucky to have them.”

Cultivating a mentorship mindset

Among those students now benefiting from their SURF experience is Marigold Malinao, a first-generation college student who joined the SURF 2020 cohort as a rising senior at UC San Diego to decide if she could handle the challenges of graduate school. Paired with Coto as a mentor, Malinao successfully navigated a research project in an unfamiliar field, boosted her professional skills and gradually embraced an expanded identity.

“It made me comfortable being surrounded by people with similar goals who came from a similar background, and we talked about that all the time,” she says. “Diversity, equity and inclusion were not things I thought a lot about before SURF, but it’s something that’s now integral to my identity. Now I think about what it means for me to be a first-generation woman in STEM.”

Following SURF, Malinao decided to apply to graduate school. She was accepted into multiple programs, but opted to return to Stanford, where she’ll begin her PhD in materials science and also hopes to work with the SURF program. Her decision to embrace graduate school thrills Coto.

“I just started crying when I heard that news,” Coto says. “This is the goal, to bring more students who haven’t had the same opportunities as others into this space. She and I also both received the same National Science Foundation Fellowship. Programs like SURF help a lot of students, and I look forward to seeing what Marigold does in graduate school and the future.”

Exploring opportunities

Wrayzene Willoughby joined SURF’s 2019 cohort as a rising sophomore at Spelman College who loved research, had a wide range of interests and was hungry for information that could help her make a decision on graduate school. “I’d just finished my freshman year and was thinking, ‘OK, I’m a Black woman and a STEM major who wants to go into engineering in the future. Is the whole research thing, the PhD, for me?’”

SURF helped her answer that question and alleviated her concern over switching fields. When she wasn’t working on research, taking workshops or engaging in tours and activities with fellow students, Willoughby took every opportunity to chat with faculty and staff about their journeys in STEM.

“SURF showed me that Stanford was flexible and helped me see what I brought to the table; that even though I was a chemistry major, I could switch over to engineering,” she says. “After I finished the program, I vividly remember telling myself, ‘You can do this; you’re going to get a PhD.’”

Willoughby recently was accepted to graduate programs including UC Berkeley and Yale and Columbia universities, but will begin her PhD in chemical and environmental engineering at Stanford, where she hopes to study the intersection of environmental sustainability and social justice as it applies to areas such as global water availability.

This isn’t what I’ve seen on TV

2020 SURF cohort member Alana Sanchez was a physics undergraduate at MIT when she looked to SURF to help transition to a graduate program. SURF gave her the research experience she wanted, helped her prepare for the GRE exam and graduate school applications, and, perhaps most important, provided her with a sense of community. She was accepted into graduate programs at MIT and UCLA, but is opting to return to Stanford, where she’ll begin her PhD program in aeronautics and astronautics, pursuing an interest in sustainable practices in space.

“It’s so important programs like these exist,” she says. “Before participating in something like SURF, it’s really hard to consider your place in STEM if you’re not from a traditional STEM background. But when I’m in a cohort of people like this, who are like me, I look around and think, ‘These are going to be my academic peers in the future; this isn’t what I’ve seen on TV or on the news.’ And that’s a really powerful thing.”

Expanding opportunities in STEM education

Programs like SURF must continue to expand their reach and serve as role models for other universities, says Chuck Eesley, associate professor of management science and engineering and a SURF faculty advisor. “Stanford has a key role to play in encouraging these types of programs at other universities, and in taking a broad view that what we’re trying to do is expand the pipeline of students from diverse backgrounds into graduate education in STEM.”

Every SURF student who steps into graduate school contributes to that effort, not only through their future research but as much-needed role models, he says.

“Each one of these students who one day stands up in front of a classroom as a faculty member will inspire countless other students to follow in their footsteps and apply to graduate school,” Eesley says. “That’s the ripple effect, and the waves that produce the change we’re looking for.”