Honoring Opportunity for All

March 7, 2012

For residents of Nogales, Arizona and surrounding Santa Cruz county, life changed in fall 2008, the year that the University of Arizona opened UA Santa Cruz. Virtually overnight, residents had a new bridge to figure into the calculus of their life plans — one that brought the possibility of baccalaureate and graduate degrees closer and could help span the divide between them and a better life.

Partnering for New Educational Outcomes

A regional learning center within the UA Outreach College, UA Santa Cruz partners with UA South in Sierra Vista and the local campus of Cochise Community College. Coursework combines online work, interactive television (ITV) and traditional class time, leading to one of 10 degrees, half of them graduate degrees.

Since opening its doors, UA Santa Cruz has seen overall enrollments grow about 10 percent a year, and roughly 90 percent of graduates from the local campus of Cochise College now continue their education at UA Santa Cruz, transforming what was once a terminal associate's degree into a milestone on the way to still greater education.

Helping Students with Exceptional Challenges

For place- and circumstance-bound students in Santa Cruz county, the presence of UA Santa Cruz in the heart of Nogales offers new opportunities.

"We have high unemployment rates and a very high poverty rate, as well," explains Justin Dutram, coordinator of Academic Outreach Programs. Local private education options are prohibitively expensive for most families, and even learners who make it to UA Santa Cruz face a host of challenges most college students don't: many are a head of household, many learned English as a second language, and many work full time while going to school.

Given these hurdles, bridging the distance between an associate's and a university degree simply didn't add up until UA Santa Cruz changed the equation.

"Our physical presence in the community and the relationships that we’ve built up with Cochise and other stakeholders brings the excellence of UA programs right here to their hometown," Dutram says. "High school juniors and seniors can see a pathway through Cochise College directly into the University of Arizona right here in Nogales, and that's something that had never been available historically."

Honoring Work for Inclusive Excellence

Creating that pathway earned the staff and educators at UA Santa Cruz one of the UA's 2012 Inclusive Excellence Awards, and that same spirit of opening education to students who might otherwise be shut out, earned John Szivek, Ph.D., the UA's other 2012 Inclusive Excellence Award.

Established in 2008, the Peter W. Likins Inclusive Excellence Awards recognize individuals and groups whose work helps make the University of Arizona a more diverse and inclusive community. Past recipients have been honored for their work to create a more diverse student body, faculty and staff and for helping to create a climate that supports all who learn and work at the UA.

Rewarding Dedication

Szivek's chairs, professorships, leadership and research roles at the University span the worlds of surgery, engineering and interdisciplinary physiological sciences, but in hearing the stories of his students from these varied academic domains, two consistent themes emerge.

First, Szivek goes above and beyond to support them in their own scientific interests, and never simply uses them to further his own research agendas. Szivek himself acknowledges, "I don’t have any real interest in strictly generating orthopedic researchers. I've found that if people are excited about something, they're going to work much harder. I’d rather have students that are happy and productive, even if I have to struggle more to put together grants for the work that they do."

Putting Students' Interests First

A second, even stronger theme in those stories is that it isn't always clear to those students why Szivek chooses their fellow lab mates. Some don't fit the profile of a Ph.D.-bound prodigy. Some barely seem to be getting by outside of school, living hand to mouth. But inevitably, they note, he treats all equally, with what one alumna describes as "indiscriminate kindness," and all thrive.

The truth is, Szivek doesn't choose his researchers the way many might expect. "I noticed early on that the students that were the most excited were the ones who worked hardest and had the most success," he explains. "That's the only selection criteria that I've found really works well."

"Most people think that we’re in the lab, and we’ve got brains the size of Texas, so everything works the first time we try it. Well that's absolutely wrong," Szivek says. "Things usually take three or four times before we actually get them right. So you need people that have some degree of motivation. The applicants that are constantly asking me, 'Well, have you decided yet? I’d really be interested.' Those are the students I take."

Advancing Education for Under-Represented Students

Many of those students work their way through school and wouldn't be able to make the time for lab research without financial support. Szivek has found much of it through National Science Foundation programs such as the Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities (WAESO), which helps underrepresented students further their science and technology education. Though WAESO grants are small — historically $1,000 and now $2,500 per student — Szivek has racked up an astonishing $250,000+ in WAESO grants for his students over the years.

Of course, high-motivation doesn't exclude students who do have great grades, impressive research experience and merit-based scholarships, so Szivek's selection criteria also creates a powerful peer-learning dynamic is his lab.

"It’s allowed me to take in these under-represented students and these very high-performing students and put them onto projects together. The WAESO students learn a lot from these really high-performing students. They learn how to access resources, they learn time management — these are things that the high-performing students understand and know how to do, and they can really help students who sometimes don’t come from a background where they’ve been taught how to utilize resources to become successful."

Setting Students on a Path for Success

The difference that these two factors make for those students who's passions earn them a spot in Szivek's lab — first, support of individual interests and second, a commitment to inclusiveness based on merit over background — is summed up in comments from lab alumnus Mark Fernandez:

"I had the pleasure of being under Dr. Szivek’s mentorship for the majority of my undergraduate career at the University of Arizona, and working with him was the highlight of my academic experience," Fernandez says.

"I am currently a fellow at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins University. What I learned a decade ago with Dr. Szivek, in the seemingly unrelated specialties of orthopedics, biomechanics and biomaterials, continues to shape my ideas and scientific thinking.

"Dr. Szivek’s students have gone on to do great things – the students in my cohort alone subsequently secured fellowships at the NIH and attended prestigious medical schools including Stanford, Cornell and Duke. I am certain that none of us would have had these opportunities if not for Dr. Szivek." 

Check out UA Santa Cruz online at uasantacruz.arizona.edu.