An innovative "cohort" program at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), operated in partnership with Hartnell College of Salinas, CA, helps the children of migrant workers and minorities earn bachelor's degrees in computer science (CS) and other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
A cohort is, simply, a group of people who have something in common. In the collegiate context, students enrolled in the CSUMB/Hartnell Cohort program are part of an insular learning community of 20 to 30 incoming freshman students each year. During their time in the program, members of the Cohort take all of their CS classes together and participate in group study periods. They also receive significant additional support, including Friday enrichment sessions, tutoring, project work, mentoring, life skills training sessions (such as resume writing and preparing for job interviews), and guidance on applying for paid summer internships.
The program aims to help students adapt more quickly to college life and learn better by being part of a group—a cohort. The program endeavors to instill confidence in them and ensure their success in CS by providing the students support to stick with the program through graduation.
The CSUMB and Hartnell College Cohort initiative consists of two distinct programs. They are:
The extra support the Cohort initiative offers is essential, says Sathya Narayanan, the CSUMB CS professor who co-founded it in 2012 with Joe Welch of Hartnell College. The pair were tasked by their respective administrations' to attract minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged students into CS, computer engineering (CE), and other STEM-related subjects, while bolstering the CS and STEM curricula.
Currently, CSUMB has approximately 500 students majoring in CS programs. The two Cohort programs have 150 to 160 students (roughly 30% of total CS majors), and about 30 additional students enroll in the Cohort program each year.
Salinas is known as "The Salad Bowl of the World." Agriculture is the predominant industry there; Salinas produces much of the nation's lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and strawberries. Many CSUMB and Hartnell College students come from minority families, particularly Latinx that are the children of farm workers.
"We're atypically diverse. Many students are first-generation children of farm workers and some have also worked alongside their parents on the farms," Narayanan notes. Additionally, many of the Cohort program students didn't have regular access to computers and other high-tech devices at home. Still others are the first in their families to attend college and as such, "they may not be as fully prepared or don't know what to expect from college life," Narayanan says.
The Cohort initiative assists students in overcoming those obstacles from the moment they arrive on campus as freshmen (or transition from Hartnell to CSUMB). "The Cohort programs instill confidence, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity. They also help with retention. We have a 75% graduation rate, well above the national average," Narayanan notes.
Narayanan says launching the initial Cohort program was a "monumental effort." It involved putting together a comprehensive curriculum, seeking grant and scholarship funding, and recruiting students from Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. Beginning in 2012, Narayanan and Hartnell's Welch "visited every high school in the area," speaking to guidance counselors and students to recruit them for the nascent Cohort CSin3 and C++ initiatives.
When Welch moved away in 2015, Sonia Arteaga, another Hartnell CS professor, took over as Cohort program co-administrator. Arteaga was an enthusiastic proponent of the Cohort program, having participated what she describes as "a loose, unofficial Cohort effort" at San Diego State University in the form of the MESA Engineering Program (MEP).
Founded in 1970, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) is a program that assists over 3,000 educationally disadvantaged K–12, community college, and four-year university students throughout California in becoming engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and other STEM discipline professionals. MESA's MEP helps educationally disadvantaged students achieve four-year degrees in engineering or computer science.
"Participating in the MESA MEP program was very reassuring. I saw the same faces in all my classes, and that familiarity made it easier to ask for help when I needed it," Arteaga says.
Hartnell's CS department has only 250 enrolled students and three full-time faculty members. "I thought it would be beneficial to have a formal [Cohort] program in place at Hartnell to forge a systemic connection with peers. A big part of the Cohort program is to give students a nurturing environment and provide them with the tools they need to succeed in CS, as well as support them in other areas," Arteaga says.
CSUMB and Hartnell are aware they need to avoid isolating the Cohort program undergraduates from the general student population. "They take non-Cohort classes with the general student body. We don't want them existing in a cocoon. We encourage them to mingle, although for some it's a challenge to step outside their comfort zone," Narayanan says.
Since its inception in 2012, Narayanan, Welch, and Arteaga have aggressively sought out funding to underwrite the Cohort program. In 2014, the Cohort program received a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for over $1.1 million, as well as $5 million from the State of California's Awards for Innovation in Higher Education program.
The Matsui Foundation, founded in 2004 by a Japanese immigrant who owns the Matsui Nursery orchid growers in Salinas, committed to providing over $4 million to fund CSin3 scholarships through 2019; this equates to $30,000 for each qualifying student.
The program attracted $10 million in funding during its first five years, which Narayanan attributes to the institutions' construction of a detailed curriculum.
The four-year C++ and the three-year accelerated CSin3 Cohort programs have resulted in much greater diversity, in terms of minorities and women enrolling in CS and STEM classes. Currently, CSUMB's CS program enrollment is "over 40% women and 65 percent Hispanic or Latinx. Two-thirds of our Cohort students are the first person in their family to attend and graduate college," Narayanan says.
Table 1 below shows the results of the CSin3 Cohort program to date:
CSin3 by the Numbers
Results 2013 – 2017
Three-year graduation rate
Women enrolled in CS
Women CS Graduates
Minority Student CS Graduates
First-Generation College Attendees
Source: California State University at Monterey Bay and Hartnell College 2017
As the statistics in Table 1 indicate, the Cohort program has made tangible strides in recruiting minorities and women to major in CS and to graduate in CS. Overall, the students in the CSUMB and Hartnell College Cohort program represent about "7% to 8% of the total number of students majoring in CS at the university," Narayanan notes.
"Women represent 44% of the students enrolled in the CSin3 program, and approximately 30% of CSin3 graduates are women. This is double the 15% of women enrolled in CSUMB's computer science program who obtain their Bachelor's degree," Narayanan says.
Additionally, 85% of the students in the CSin3 program are minorities, compared with the minority students who make up 40% of those who graduate with a major in CS from CSUMB.
The four-year graduation rate for CSUMB's general CS program and in the 23 colleges in the CSU system as a whole "has remained steady at about 20%," Narayanan says.
The Cohort program also instills a "sense of competitiveness," Arteaga asserts. "Once they get acclimated, the Cohorts realize they can learn CS and master programming and excel. They lose their inhibitions, challenging each other in classes and study groups. They experiment and push boundaries."
Each Cohort program student learns "at least two programming languages" Arteaga says. "They're doing some very creative things like writing and developing application for agricultural moisture and watering, or an air guitar application," Narayan notes.
"It's powerful. Even before they graduate, students can envision what they're capable of achieving," Arteaga says. "It gives them the needed academic and life skills tools to persevere in their STEM studies," she adds.
Those tools include group study classes, resume writing, and practice job interviews. "We have Friday workshops that we call 'Above and Beyond Computer Science' where we gather juniors and seniors who are looking for a job and conduct mock interviews," Arteaga says. The program also enlists representatives from tech firms like Slack, Facebook, Google, Salesforce, and Uber to come to campus to discuss employment opportunities at their firms,.
The Cohort students also get a taste of the real world; during the summer between their second and third years in the CSin3 Cohort program, they participate in paid internships at a wide range of high-tech and Fortune 500 businesses.
Current students and alumni say the program gave them a sense of self-esteem, empowerment ,and accomplishment.
Jessie Dowding, who's in her final year of the C++ program, is the first person in her family to attend college. Dowding, who had no prior interest in computer science, heard about the Cohort program when she attended a CSUMB open house hosted by Narayanan and was immediately intrigued by the notion of studying "closely with peers and upperclassmen who had the same interests and backgrounds as me," she recalls.
Dowding says being part of the Cohort program allowed her to "settle in faster and meet people more quickly."
She found it especially beneficial being part of a group during the first few semesters. The Cohort program had a framework that included daily study hours where students exchanged ideas. Dowding credits the Cohort program support system for helping her stick with CS. "My peers were going through the same experience, otherwise I would have been stumped in introductory programming courses. I don't know if I'd still be in CS without the Cohort program. Now I completely love it," Dowding says.
Like Dowding, Kristine Laranjo, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, is the first member of her family to attend university. Before joined the Cohort program, Laranjo attended both Monterey Peninsula College and Hartnell, originally planning to study kinesiology and go into physical therapy. " I felt a bit lost and adrift," Laranjo recalls.
A friend told her about the Cohort program, and she liked the concept. Although at first intimidated by the coursework, Laranjo overcame her doubts thanks to a mentor and the support of her peers. "I embraced programming: C++, Java, you name it. There's so much to learn," Laranjo says.
"I love that the Cohort program prepares me for life. The teachers and the support staff are great," Laranjo says. She interned at Uber in San Francisco last summer, where she built applications on the Android platform. After graduation, Laranjo plans to specialize in software engineering and mobile application development. Ultimately, Laranjo hopes to helm her own startup "after I come up with a big idea, way in the future," she says.
Going forward, Narayanan and Arteaga say they will continue to hone the Cohort programs.
"We want to improve on the students' readiness to take on the paid internships, which is a challenge because they're getting their bachelor of science in three years," Arteaga says.
Another objective is to get the program to the point where it can be replicated at other institutions in a cost-effective manner and demonstrate that you can get underrepresented minorities and economically disadvantaged students through college in three years with a comprehensive support system.
"At the end of the day, it's a win-win for all, since the students prosper and businesses get a talented and more diverse workforce," Narayanan says.
Laura DiDio is Principal Analyst at ITIC a research and consulting firm in the Boston area.
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