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When it comes to a family's budget, one of the big challenges is paying for college. We've been reporting on this issue and today we're focusing on low income and minority students. They often struggle to find the money to pay for school and that can have an impact on the majors they choose. Too few make it into the sciences - fields that often require years of study and graduate degrees.
A new program at the City University of New York is funneling minority students into astronomy and giving them the support they need, financial and otherwise, to succeed. From member station WNYC, Beth Fertig reports.
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Ariel Diaz first felt the pull of astronomy when he was a Marine stationed in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. At the time, he says he was miserable - missing his friends and family back in New York City.
ARIEL DIAZ: And I would go to the beach with my friend Brandon Tilly and we would go and we would just go to the beach, have a beer and just look at the stars and, and everything was OK.
FERTIG: Diaz finished his service three years ago and came home, enrolling in a community college at the City University of New York. When it was time to take a science class, he thought about that time on the beach.
DIAZ: Like, I like stars, let me take an easy course. Let me take an easy astronomy course.
FERTIG: It wasn't easy. As any Astronomy 101 student can tell you, it's not star gazing but lots of physics and math. Diaz needed help passing calculus. But he says it was worth it to learn about stars and galaxies.
DIAZ: I've never in my life, never in my life have I been motivated to do something. And this is the first thing that touched me. It was like I really like it and I want to do it.
FERTIG: A professor was so impressed she encouraged Diaz to apply to a new program called AstroComNYC at the City University of New York. The tuition is fully funded. Diaz was already covered by the G.I. Bill but as a low-income student, he's grateful the program also includes a research job in astronomy this summer.
DIAZ: And they're paying us for this opportunity. That's unheard of to me where I'm coming from.
FERTIG: AstroCom is among many programs funded by the National Science Foundation to bring more underrepresented minorities into the sciences. The country's most famous astronomer, Neil Degrasse Tyson, is African-American, but the data show only two percent of all U.S. students earning doctoral degrees in astronomy and physics, over an entire decade, were either black or Hispanic.
TIM PAGLIONE: So if we just throw a couple more students into grad school, we make a huge impact.
FERTIG: Tim Paglione is in charge of AstroCom. He's a professor at York College at Queens, which is part of CUNY, and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. He says CUNY's low-income, mostly minority students often aren't prepared well in high school for all that math and physics. And many of them have to work to pay for college.
PAGLIONE: We don't want them to be working. We want them to be concentrating on their academics. So we removed that tuition problem.
FERTIG: In addition, AstroCom provides free transportation on the city subways and buses, plus laptop computers and mentors. Students meet every Friday at the museum for a class on scientific research methods.
PAGLIONE: So we have three different kinds. We have the alpha, beta and the gamma...
FERTIG: Today, Ariel Diaz and three of his fellow students are sitting in a conference room with their laptops learning about radiation.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That was gamma, right?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was...
FERTIG: But mentoring is expensive. AstroCom has only accepted eight students since it started two years ago. It expects to reach about 25 by the end of its five-year grant. Diaz's astronomy professor, Saavik Ford of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, says there's a reason it's so small.
SAAVIK FORD: It's an apprenticeship program. Because that's what we know works. We can't have one faculty member to 50 students. It's not effective.
FERTIG: Ford says that's borne out by decades of research.
FORD: And we have this huge dropout rate and it's much worse for underrepresented minorities and women.
FERTIG: Researchers say these groups often need extra support, financial and otherwise. They point to a similar program in Tennessee that boosted the number of blacks and Latinos earning Ph.D.'s. But this new one at CUNY starts earlier, beginning with freshman, to keep them on track. So far, all eight of the students in AstroCom are still in school, although two left for other majors.
Betsy Hernandez started the program this year and her goal is a Ph.D. in physics. She's 35 and works part-time. She says the free tuition has lightened her load.
BETSY HERNANDEZ: I would have continued with my student loans, which I didn't want. That's one of the reasons why I stopped at one point, going to school, because I wanted to get rid of the debt.
FERTIG: For Ariel Diaz, it's all the other support that's really making the difference. He lives in a small apartment with his father in public housing, where it's hard to even find a quiet place to study.
DIAZ: I just don't have the space. My door doesn't close and I receive knocks all the time.
FERTIG: Diaz grew up here on the Lower East Side. He's grateful for the free laptop computer and the monthly transit card. They enable him to study at the museum when he isn't helping to care for his father - who is blind and has diabetes.
Sixty-eight-year-old old Jovino Diaz says he's proud his son, even if he doesn't fully understand what he's studying. He had very little education himself in his native Dominican Republic.
JOVINO DIAZ: (Spanish spoken)
DIAZ: He's saying as long as I'm studying that's all he really cares about. Because as long as you're studying to go forward, you're not going to go backwards
FERTIG: By going forward, Ariel Diaz says he hopes to become a professor. Some day, he can teach other students and change the face of astronomy research.
For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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