The secret to providing everyone a chance at STEM education

06.10.2014 | By Jeannie Peng-Armao

The idea of affordable education led Kaleena Ramirez to San Jacinto College, but the education landed her one of the 15 spots to the baccalaureate program in histotechnology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the world's leading cancer center.

"I never thought I would achieve this success from a community college," said Ramirez. "I went in thinking it would be easy but I found it to be very challenging and rewarding through hard work. Things I didn't understand about chemistry just clicked instantaneously with my professors."

The student success stories coming from Texas community colleges have resulted in double takes on the assumptions about two-year institutions and the ability to transfer to top-tier universities with a competitive education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Each year, San Jacinto College students are transferring to the University of Houston, University of Texas, and Texas A&M University, just to name a few. They are among the top selected to degree programs at MD Anderson and summer internships at Rice University.

What's the secret? Ask the professor in the tie-dye lab coat.

Dr. Ann Cartwright, chemistry professor, co-chair of the San Jacinto College STEM Council, and 2011 recipient of an American Chemical Society Excellence in Teaching award, has taught chemistry for more than 30 years. Her method is a fusion of traditional chemistry projects and experiments mixed with a free-thinking interactive environment, inside and outside of the classroom. She and fellow professors and students visit elementary schools each semester to bring gak, slime, shrinky dinks, and chemistry in a bag to hundreds of budding young scientists. What may work for one student may not work for another, and she knows this, offering up several teaching styles to help someone reach a solution.

"The students who come to us are as bright as ever, balancing a lot in their personal lives while pursuing their college dreams," said Dr. Cartwright. "They bring with them unique skill sets, and it is up to us to guide and challenge them to find their full potential in STEM education. For many, it has been a rewarding surprise to find their own talents in areas like physics and chemistry."

One characteristic Dr. Cartwright acknowledges, as a definite need for any successful student, is perseverance, as is the case of Adrina Baghalian. Baghalian has spent the last six years at San Jacinto College; first, enrolling in the College's ESOL program to learn English for two years; then two more years to complete college preparatory reading, writing, and math; and spending the last two years enrolled in college-level courses and studying biology. During her time, she volunteered for science service learning activities. She learned of opportunities at MD Anderson from Dr. Cartwright and Dr. Reza Marvdashti, who takes San Jacinto College students to the cancer center each semester to study genetics alongside MD Anderson faculty members for six weeks. Now, Baghalian is one of 16 applicants who have been accepted to the clinical sciences program at MD Anderson this Fall. Her secret? She went through a rigorous pre-interview with Dr. Cartwright.

"Before applying to MD Anderson, I had never before applied to a university," said Baghalian. "The interview process was very difficult, but Dr. Cartwright's mock interview made a huge difference in preparing me for what to expect."

Ramirez was a flight attendant for five years before she realized that she wanted a "more stable and interesting career, one that made a contribution to society." She had initially thought of nursing as a career path and took a class in microbiology under the instruction of Dr. Kirsten Raines, where she found her love for lab work and started to look at different programs, narrowing her focus to MD Anderson. She made the decision to apply to the histotechnology program, which accepts 15 applicants a year. She, too, was prepared for her interview with a mock interview at San Jacinto College.

Her classmate, Fernando Zuniga, is on a separate path, following in the footsteps of last year's star chemistry student, Daniel Rodriguez. Like Rodriguez, Zuniga worked his way through college, paying for his tuition with his own paycheck, spending days and nights at the College's math and departments to earn a 4.0 grade point average and gain acceptance to Rice University for an internship. He has received several scholarships including the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) scholarship; the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (T-STEM) scholarship; and a San Jacinto College Foundation scholarship. He will attend the University of Houston to study engineering this Fall.

Zuniga, Baghalian, and Ramirez, have found what many others are learning, that affordable education does not mean sacrificing goals. It is about offering a combination of resources to help a person succeed.

"San Jacinto College gives you the scholarships; they give you excellent professors and the internship opportunities," said Zuniga. "Everything is here. It is what you do with it that gets you to where you want to go in life."

About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of 30,000 credit students in more than 200 degree and certificate options, including university transfer and career and workforce preparation. Students also benefit from the College’s job training programs, renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce. San Jacinto College. Your Goals. Your College.

For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit, or follow us on Facebook.