College of Engineering News Room

Helping Community College Students Take the Road to a Four-Year Degree


A new NSF-funded program for community college students will leverage University of South Florida’s (USF) relationship with Polk State College (PSC) to enable students with low socio-economic backgrounds to attain a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

By Russell Nay

A new and inspiring project to help rural, non-traditional PSC students attain an Associate of Arts degree at PSC and a bachelor’s degree in Engineering at USF's Tampa campus recently received a $3 million National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) grant formally titled: Curricular, Co-curricular, Social, and Financial Supports for Successful Transfer and Graduation of Engineering Undergraduates from Rural/Nontraditional Backgrounds.

A five-year project beginning in Spring 2021 — aptly referred to as Transfer Undergraduate Rural/Nontraditional Student Pathways through Identity, Knowledge & Engagement (TURNPIKE) — will provide 50 students with scholarships to fully cover the cost of their undergraduate education.

This initiative is led by USF College of Engineering Associate Dean for Academics & Student Affairs and Professor Sanjukta Bhanja, who believes that TURNPIKE will yield unique insights into crafting an effective path to an engineering degree for particular student experiences that are seldom researched.

“The academic experience of rural community college students with hopes of transferring to a large metropolitan university is quite unique in that they face additional socio-cultural challenges, especially when compared to students already familiar with more cosmopolitan settings,” Bhanja said. “This problem is further compounded for students from low socio-economic backgrounds; thus, academic and social support is crucial. To aid in the transition to four-year institutions, TURNPIKE will provide support programs and interventions that are important for improving the retention and success of these students in STEM fields.”

Polk State College is an ideal partner for this project because it is an access point to an associate degree for a large pool of rural Polk County students with varying socio-ethnic backgrounds who aspire to pursue an engineering degree.

Bhanja stated that the program will focus on establishing academic support and social interactions that students will need in order to effectively overcome anticipated barriers in achieving a bachelor’s degree — namely the significant shifts in diversity, culture, and course selection that come with the transition from a rural community college to a large metropolitan university.

While still at Polk State College, students will launch their TURNPIKE journey with the Pre-Engineering Academy to help them prepare for complex engineering courses. They will also participate in Course-driven Learning Communities (CLC).

TURNPIKE co-principal investigator and USF College of Engineering Director of Student Services and Professor Mary Goodwin said the program’s CLC is essential for TURNPIKE to reach its retention goals, as it’s designed to help students persist in challenging subjects.

“The CLC will provide a cooperative learning environment to help keep students motivated and engaged,” Goodwin said. “It also helps to reduce the anxiety students may have when they approach math and science courses and helps break down cultural and psychological barriers to asking for help.”

Throughout the program, students will also receive guidance from Department of Medical Engineering instructor Souheil Zekri and Department of Electrical Engineering instructor Alejandro Castellanos, who will each lead an S-STEM cohort as an academic adviser.

Zekri and Castellanos will teach cohort-specific courses that address the 14 NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering and potentially include an interdisciplinary project focused on smart healthcare and smart urban infrastructure.

“With the early alert systems available to follow up on students, we’re able to catch those students before they fall through the cracks,” according to Zekri. “When a student doesn’t know anyone who went to college, they may have the ability and drive to succeed, but they may not have the experience and advising leadership they need to flourish in their program.”

As the project progresses, a section of the program team will be dedicated to evaluating its progress toward the project’s main goal of an 80% retention rate of TURNPIKE students along every program milestone. That is, it aims to retain 80% of initial participants who will complete an AA degree at Polk State College, 80% of students who will successfully transfer to a USF engineering baccalaureate program, and 80% of participants who will achieve a bachelor’s degree in engineering at USF.

Alongside the project evaluation team members, co-principal investigator and Department of Sociology Associate Professor Will Tyson will begin conducting social research in the third year of the program to determine the potential barriers TURNPIKE students may experience. This starts with setting a benchmark of quantitative data on the general retention and progression of USF engineering students who transferred from community colleges, as well as FTIC engineering students who started college at USF. This is followed by focus group interviews in the project’s fourth and fifth years.

“This qualitative portion will also look at how students describe the challenges they face coming from Polk State to USF and how they’re managing those challenges,” Tyson said. “Are they describing challenges that are more academic? Do they feel like Polk State prepared them for what they’re dealing with at USF? Is there a culture shock coming to a much larger campus at USF and moving from a rural area to the USF Tampa area? We’re very interested in the interventions that will take place through this project, as well as the scholarships, which we hope will mediate the economic and financial concerns students have.”

TURNPIKE’s results will be shared with community colleges across the state and nationwide with the overall goal of helping community colleges develop best practices for students who plan to transfer to a nearby four-year university after achieving an associate degree.

“These best practices will guide our interaction with other community college partners, and it’s a great opportunity for us to diversify our own students,” Bhanja said.

A special acknowledgement from Professor Sanjukta Bhanja:

The opportunity to support this transitional process would not be possible without the insight and talents from committed teams at both PSC and USF from the get-go. For their dedication to the success of these students, I’d like to thank university partners Dr. Fai Howard, Assistant Dean of Upper-Level Initiatives, Billie Jo Hamilton, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Planning & Management, and the team at the Office of Financial Aid, Kyna Batencourt, Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Curriculum, General Education, Assessment, and Academics; additional thanks is also extended to the Data Analysts at the Office of Decision Support. 

The College of Engineering members at large are Michelle King, Curriculum and Data Analyst, Eva Fernandez, Talent Acquisition and Outreach, Veronica Jo, Academic Services Administrator of Engineering Academic Affairs, Szilvia Barna, Program Coordinator for the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program, at USF Engineering, Catherine Burton, College of Engineering Academic Program Specialist, and Cindy Vallaro, Grant Research Administrator.

Polk State College partners include Jennifer Fiorenza, Director of Grants Administration, PSC; Co-PI and Professor of Physics and Research Mentor for Underrepresented Minorities, Bulmuo Maakuu; Co-PI and Vice President of Student Services, Reginald Webb, who will oversee scholarship distribution and facilitate access to college resources; PSC Professor of Mathematics, Mike Malone; PSC Professor of Physics, Dirk Valk; and PSC Professor of Mathematics, Li Zhuo.

The TURNPIKE teams are undoubtedly committed to equity in engineering education. This project aspires to bridge this equity gap and will contribute to the national need for well-educated scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technicians by supporting the retention and graduation of high-achieving, low-income students with demonstrated financial need at Polk State College, University of South Florida, and beyond.