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Riverland Community College Celebrates The Graduation Of The 2020 R-STEP Academy Class

On Friday, Aug. 1, Riverland Community College and the Center for Agricultural and Food Science Technology (CAFST) celebrated the graduation of its 2020 R-STEP Academy class.

R-STEP Acadmey graduation picture. Photo provided

The academy included 17 students from local high schools, including those from Austin High School and Pacelli Catholic Schools. Aside from traditional students, the group also has included those from different diversities, including Latino, Karen/Karenni, African-American and Somali nationalities. 

Graduates of the 2020 Riverland Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (R-STEP) Academy class include Jacqueline Garcia, Salestina Alitz, Rosemary Manzano, Isaac Drees, Haley VanWinkle, Claire Connett, Ryan Darveaux, Alisa Witikko, Heidi Pryor, Andi Birch, Piper Kellner, Amy Phan, Reagan Barnes, Ibraahiim Roble, Lucy Masara, Wendy Ambriz and Javier Cifuentes. 

R-STEP Academy is a premier summer program focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for area youth ages 16-22. The program seeks to offer a college-level curriculum to local high school and Riverland Community College students who are interested in STEM and growing as leaders.

R-STEP Academy students learned more about Agriculture and Food Science Technology from the Minnesota State Center of Excellence in Agriculture in early August 2019. Photo provided

Students were supported by Riverland Community College tutors, advisors, counselors, and support staff that encouraged and helped students to be successful in the fast-paced program.

This year’s program took place from July 6-Aug. 14 at Riverland Community College. Due to COVID-19, the program ran primarily online. Students were expected to use Zoom to attend all class times, tutoring times with their R-STEP academy tutor, and to interact with each other in various breakout rooms. Students had the option of meeting on campus to take part in the STEM and Career Exploration seminar presentations. If students did not feel comfortable coming to campus, they could take part in them virtually. Students were asked to reflect on each experience and discuss what they learned. 

R-STEP Academy is primarily a face-to-face delivery method, so adjusting to an online format was remarkable. 

“We knew that based upon experience, skills, knowledge, and expertise that we could fully provide the R-STEP Academy experience to our future STEM leaders in an almost solely online format,” said R-STEP Academy Coordinator/Agricultural Instructor Nick Schiltz. “We had tremendous support from many personnel and staff who stood behind each student, worked with their technology needs, brought them up to speed on what it means to be a college student, and encouraged them throughout to provide the best experience possible. It was gratifying to hear from our students about the fantastic experience they had in R-STEP in 2020. A typical semester is around 16 weeks. Our students had to put forth enough effort and determination to complete the course’s curriculum in six weeks for three separate courses.” 

R-STEP Academy is in its third year after starting in 2018. A total of 39 students have graduated from the program thus far with an average graduate GPA of over 3.0. For some students, this is the beginning of their college education. For others, it is a chance to pick up credits to continue working towards their eventual degrees. Along with taking these courses across an accelerated six-week period (instead of the traditional 16 weeks), R-STEP students also learn about applied research methods, hear from area leaders in STEM through applied activities, and gain crucial career exploration and college preparedness skills. This key aspect sets the R-STEP Academy aside from other college students who are simply taking credits.

Students learn about STEM curriculum and then how professionals use these studies in their local occupations. Students also interact with Riverland Community College faculty, counselors, tutors, and relate staff throughout their program, enriching and furthering their chances of success.

Students have also been tasked with leadership development in the past during earlier R-STEP Academy classes. They served as group leaders at the 2019 Mower County Progressive Ag Safety Day. They were even asked to plan and coordinate their own 2020 R-STEP Academy graduation.

Students, family members, and key support members joined the graduation class on Friday, Aug. 14,  to celebrate their hard work. Notable presenters included Hormel Foods, Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, Home Federal Savings Bank, Northern Country Cooperative, the United Way of Mower County, Riverland Community College, Austin Fire Department, Austin Police Department, The BlueZones Project Albert Lea and the Minnesota State Center of Excellence in Agriculture. 

The program is provided free to each student through a generous donation from The Hormel Foundation. This key attribute allows students who otherwise would not be able to afford to go to college a reality. For some, this means a significant savings on their college tuition bill.

Learn more about R-STEP Academy at www.riverland.edu/rstep