NeXXt Scholars Program Equips Future Generation of Female STEM Leaders

Posted by Frances Colon
August 27, 2014
NeXXt Participants Pose for Photo at Barnard College

Ananya Kadir first heard about the NeXXt Scholars Program while volunteering at the American Corner at the U.S. Embassy of Bangladesh in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She felt this program would be a perfect match aligning her passion for science, her desire to learn more about possible careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and her need for a mentor that could show her the ropes. Ananya is studying Computer Science at the College of St. Elizabeth as an International NeXXt Scholar and she attributes her success at the university thus far to the NeXXt Scholars Program. “The network has allowed me to see how enthusiastic everyone is about our success and equips us with tools to counteract the social obstacles we face as women in STEM”, says Ms. Kadir.

The NeXXt Scholars Program is an opportunity for young women from countries with Muslim-majority populations and their American counterparts to receive professional development, career support, and mentoring while studying STEM at U.S. women’s colleges. In addition to being paired with a professional mentor, each International NeXXt Scholar is also matched with a college-selected American NeXXt Scholar so the students can explore the Program together. The Program was inspired by the experience of a young woman from a conservative Muslim family who planned to attend Smith College in the United States to get her master’s degree in the sciences. Since living alone abroad was not culturally acceptable, the woman’s father expected to live with her throughout these studies. Smith College could not support a visa for her father and also did not support the idea. What gave this father the confidence to let his daughter pursue the degree alone in the U.S. was his high regard for science and the fact that this was a women’s college with single-sex housing. Since then, this young woman has been able to pursue a doctoral degree at a co-educational institution as her family’s support increased.

In the spring of 2014, NeXXt Scholars, mentors, and speakers convened in New York City at Barnard College for the second annual NeXXt Scholars meeting. The annual meeting is a venue for Scholars to develop skills for STEM success through networking, problem-solving, and team-building. At this year’s meeting, Scholars represented Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, the West Bank and Gaza, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, the United States, and Uzbekistan.

NeXXt Scholars is a unique mentorship program that recognizes the power of mentorship across cultural boundaries. A vital component of the Program is the role of senior mentors, successful women in STEM fields who volunteer their time and expertise to guide these young scientists and engineers. Dr. Christina Medina-Ramirez, a speaker at this year’s annual meeting, recalled that her success was “only possible with the guidance of great mentors and through research programs intended to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM”. Harvard microbiologist Arpita Bose stressed the value of giving back: “Just knowing that I have the ability to help young women achieve their dreams in this rewarding field of STEM is a reward in itself” citing that networks like these increase confidence in the next generation of leaders and empower young women to use their scientific and technical training to contribute to the global community.

The NeXXt Scholars Program has the ambitious goal of increasing not only women’s participation but also retention in STEM careers. Engaging girls and young women in STEM careers is critical to bridge the growing talent gap in these sectors and provides economies with the diverse skills and perspectives needed to thrive. A STEM education gives women skills to improve living standards for their families and promotes scientific values like meritocracy, transparency, and data-driven decision-making. 

NeXXt Scholars are also leaders on their college campuses. International NeXXt Scholar, Ghada Tafesh, of Gaza, is entering her junior year at Wilson College and was elected by her student body to serve as president of the Wilson College Student Government Association.

Perhaps Claudia Mazur, American NeXXt Scholar studying Geology at Mount Holyoke College summed it up best: “my mentor has definitely been the best part of the NeXXt Scholars Program. Her experiences and valuable insights are helpful when deciding what classes to take, writing a cover letter, applying to graduate school and so on. Most importantly, it is great to know that there is someone who wants to help me become successful”.

The State Department believes in the value of science, technology, and innovation partnerships—such as this collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences— to provide promising avenues for empowering and educating women.

Join us as we empower the “NeXXt” generation of female STEM leaders. To apply for the Program or to find out more information, please refer to www.state.gov/e/stas/nexxt/ or email nexxtscholars@state.gov.

About the Author: Frances Colon serves as Acting Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, in the Department of State's Bureau of Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment (E).  Follow @STASatState on Twitter for updates from the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser.

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