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Simons STEM Scholars Welcomes Its Inaugural Class

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Executive Director Erwin Cabrera (left) welcomed the first-ever cohort for the Stony Brook University Simons STEM Scholars Program. Photos by Sabrina Liguori.

Stony Brook University’s Simons STEM Scholars (SBUSSS) Program celebrated the signing of its first-ever cohort of students on May 5 at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute in New York City.

The 29 incoming freshmen were selected after a rigorous selection process; roughly 800 applicants were considered in a series of interviews and symposiums to determine the finalists.

Funded by a $56.6 million donation from the Simons Foundation and Simons Foundation International, the SBUSSS Program provides members with full scholarships, housing, research opportunities, internship stipends, advising, mentoring and more to comprehensively ameliorate the STEM career pipeline for underrepresented students. The selected scholars’ SAT scores represent the top 1 percent in the nation.

“These students came to us with maximum AP credits, high-level research experience, and exceptional test scores,” said SBUSSS Program Executive Director Erwin Cabrera. “But those aren’t the only things that will get them to the finish line. To be an honors student at this university is not just about accolades — it is about who you are and your humanity.” 

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President Maurie McInnis speaking with members of the Simons STEM Scholars Program’s inaugural class.

Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis welcomed the scholars to the Stony Brook community.

“At Stony Brook, we have an opportunity to create change and lead conversations needed to solve the most urgent issues of the twenty-first century through innovation in an inclusive academic community,” said McInnis. “And that is what the Simons STEM Scholars Program is about. We are incredibly grateful to the Simons Foundation for their commitment to building this program and are looking forward to welcoming the scholars to campus this summer.”

She also encouraged the students to rise to the challenge of the important work in front of them. “As Simons STEM Scholars, you have the chance to help build a better, healthier society for all, from fighting climate change to understanding Alzheimer’s, shaping astronomic research to conserving endangered species and more,” McInnis said. “We can’t wait to work with you.”

Marcus Velazquez, from the New York City iSchool, is part of the inaugural class and plans on majoring in electrical engineering. “As a STEM student, what drew me to the program is that they cultivate your learning and really care about you and help you apply your knowledge to the research world and make an impact,” he said.

Ailyn Vasquez Taveras and Deasia Valdemar, classmates from Long Island’s Brentwood High School, will continue to be classmates as part of the Simons Center’s inaugural class. Taveras will major in biochemistry while Valdemar will join the biology program.

Simons stem welcome tshirtsTaveras said she heard about the program from a friend and was drawn to how Stony Brook take underrepresented students and puts them in environments where they can flourish. For Valdemar, who is entering the pre-med program, Stony Brook’s inclusive environment was especially appealing.

“I noticed where they had a special cultural area for all cultures,” she said. “That meant a lot to me. It showed that there will be other people like me here.”

From volunteering at hospitals to tutoring and mentoring younger students, the inaugural Simons STEM scholars share a commitment to service that sets them apart in the academic sphere and beyond. Some students in the cohort have contributed to cutting-edge cancer research, one has helped save lives in an ambulance, and another has received multiple gold medals at various leadership conferences led by SkillsUSA.

“You expect these students to be amazing based on their resumes and transcripts, but watching them interact with one another, they gelled together so quickly and it was genuine,” said Brady Brick, coordinator of recruitment, special events and family outreach for SBUSSS. “It’s great to pull together all these high-achieving students, but I think we really put together a group that’s like a team, and I think that’s pretty unique.”

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SBUSSS Program Executive Director Erwin Cabrera speaking at the welcome event in New York City May 5.

Future Simons STEM scholars will be inducted in groups of 50, but the inaugural class was condensed to 29 to better pilot the program before its staff expands from four members to eight. Roughly 90 percent of the selected students are New York residents. Life science and engineering are the most popular majors among the group, with other students opting for social science, applied sciences or math and physics.

The scholars will move onto campus on Sunday, June 25, for a six-week Summer Bridge Program dedicated to preparing them for their collegiate careers.

Cabrera told the inaugural class that they were the next generation of changers and shakers in research.

“Excellence in STEM is a team sport,” he said. “When you think about what it means to be a researcher, think back to this moment. There are a legion of scientists and like-minded researchers who look like the scholars in this room that are tackling issues at the frontlines of STEM. I hope that when you leave Stony Brook University, you leave motivated with the idea to dream big.”

— Robert Emproto

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