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US2020 RTP‘s “RTPi3: Ignite, Innovate, and Inspire Challenge” essay contest was open to high school students in five Innovate NC communities: Asheville, Greensboro, Pembroke, Wilmington, and Wilson. Students were asked, “If you had no obstacles and unlimited resources in pursuing a STEM career, how would you ignite an idea, show great innovation or inspire someone else? How would you make a difference in your community?” The author of the winning essay receives a $2500 technology package of Microsoft products and the second place winner receives a tablet and headphones. The author of the winning essay receives a $2500 technology package of Microsoft products and the second-place winner receives a tablet and headphones. This week, EdNC will feature the second- and first-place essays.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, you are taught a few things at the very start of your service year. Your work is temporary. Your efforts will be great. You may see little immediate reward because you are building sustainability, and most importantly, to do this, you typically must work yourself out of a job.

Last July during Pre Service Orientation, before I had officially joined the US2020 RTP team as the events & external communications lead AmeriCorps VISTA, I was first learning what it meant to be an AmeriCorps VISTA. Serving in AmeriCorps looks different depending on where you are serving, but one thing AmeriCorps members have in common is we all want to see the world become a better place. Not in a dreamy, lofty way that sounds good in interviews. In a very tangible, let’s “get things done” fashion. In the early weeks of my AmeriCorps VISTA year, I quickly was on boarded to the mission of US2020 from a national perspective — that being to increase the number of STEM mentors for low-income, minority, and female students. I was intimidated initially by the idea of working for a STEM mentoring nonprofit, as science, technology, engineering, and math were all subjects that I felt I was never strong in, and could never be strong in during middle and high school. With an entire service year ahead of me, I wondered what I would be able to offer the program and to the students we served, with such a STEM insecurity that I felt even still?

As I learned about the students we seek to serve, the communities that they come from, the resources that North Carolina and especially the Triangle area of NC had to offer, I was immediately inspired. I remember how at one point I really enjoyed making science projects for the annual science fairs in school, and how I thought math was cool, and by my freshman year in high school I knew I hated science and math and carried that burdensome feeling into college. I never had a STEM mentor, I have never gone to any cool STEM Expos like the ones US2020 RTP hosts. I didn’t know what it was like to love STEM, but knowing what it was like to feel like I wasn’t a strong student inspired me to want students to feel more excited about learning.

STEM education is important, and not just for the doctors and astronauts and mathematicians. STEM is a foundation for education as a whole. It sharpens critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, and encourages a sense of wonder that we may sometimes disregard as such a vital element to the success of students. Taking this into consideration, I thought again of our target demographic: Students who were from NC, who may have barriers to success. Who perhaps with the chance to have a great experience with a STEM mentor would decide they wanted to pursue a career in a STEM field. Having a degree post high school, whether it be from a vocational training program, a community college, or a four year university, is the next step for a student wanting to be a STEM professional. All the mentoring in the world wouldn’t help balance the costs of tuition or supplies, and this barrier to success seemed like a natural evolution for the US2020 RTP program.

I came up with the idea of starting a scholarship program and talked to others in my office to get their own thoughts. My site supervisor, Brett Brenton, was very encouraging and supportive as we pushed forward. Being days into my AmeriCorps VISTA year, having never worked directly in schools, never received a scholarship myself, and with my own bachelor’s degree still being a work in progress, I had no idea what kind of undertaking I was suggesting. All I knew was that I wanted to help the kids who didn’t see themselves being great in STEM rethink why they had counted themselves out so early, and if they wanted to seek higher education in STEM, make sure that money wasn’t the reason why they couldn’t do that.

After discussing the logistics of a scholarship, we began to float the idea for an essay contest back and forth, deciding how to make it feasible for our program and attainable for this year. US2020 RTP was a new initiative, and a new nonprofit that was still in its infancy. We wondered what sort of impact we could potentially have by offering a contest, and what would be the best way to jump in. With my fellow AmeriCorps VISTA Zach Rubin, the three of us brainstormed how to build on the partnerships with schools, nonprofits, and STEM industry partners that were established in year one.

I researched other STEM contests, to figure out how this sort of thing looked internally. The most important thing to me was to not alienate students who didn’t feel like they were academically promising. In fact those were the exact students I wanted to include. Students who had previously scoffed at the idea of STEM or writing, or maybe school in general. Through consultation with staff from the Research Triangle Foundation, the idea began to grow and take form. Resources and methodology was suggested, and we began to flesh out the details of what would soon be the RTPi3: Ignite, Innovate and Inspire Challenge. The question was simple, “If you had no obstacles and unlimited resources in pursuing a STEM career, how would you ignite an idea, show great innovation or inspire someone else? How would you make a difference in your community?” We wanted students to think outside the box, imagine themselves as powerful, and to think about their futures in a dynamic new way.

Through collaboration, eventually it was suggest that we reach out to another program, InnovateNC that worked specifically with five communities from around North Carolina. InnovateNC seeks to strengthen the innovation economies through STEM in Asheville, Greensboro, Pembroke, Wilmington, and Wilson. We met with Sarah Langer Hall and were able to create a partnership to offer the RTPi3 to the counties that each InnovateNC community were seated in. These communities were areas that had larger groups of students that met our target demographic, as well as were spread out further across the state, allowing the reach of US2020 RTP to expand further than just Wake and Durham counties.

On February 1st, we launched the RTPi3 and worked through our existing networking as well as tapped into new networks to reach the selected counties. Throughout it all, new wisdom was gained at every step. As essays began to come in, we were able to hear from the bright minds from across our great state, from the future innovators who would overcome their barriers to not only achieve personal success but also ignite a passion and inspire someone else to one day do the same.

At the close of my VISTA year, I am feeling sad to be soon leaving. However, I read the bright ideas from the students selected and see sustainability. I see sustainable passion from them, I see long lasting reward from knowing they are moving closer to accomplishing their noble goals. It was an honor to be a part of the US2020 Research Triangle Park team and be able to create a new offering that will surely go on to invite more students from around our home state to think about themselves as very able, very capable, and so very abundant.


RTPi3 Series

Wednesday: RTPi3: Ignite, Innovate, and Inspire Challenge

Thursday: Ignite, Innovate, and Inspire Challenge: Second-place essay

Friday: Ignite, Innovate, and Inspire Challenge: First-place essay

Tatiana Jenkins

Tatiana Jenkins is the events and external communications lead AmeriCorps VISTA for US2020 RTP.