iC Dingbat

Hands-on Head Start

Story by: Teko Mmolawa '12  |  Photos By: Kyle Wehner '14

While many freshmen struggle to tell buildings apart in the first weeks of school, one group of first-years navigates the campus with grace. “I knew where everything was. I had friends,” said Kimara Nzamubona ’14. “It was not a new environment for me.”

Nzamubona, of Portland, Maine, was one of 13 students to participate in the first Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences, or CAPS, in the summer of 2010. The program, now in its second year, aims to improve retention of underrepresented minorities in the sciences by getting them acquainted with the campus, the science curriculum, and the labs.

Created by Colby science faculty led by professors Andrea Tilden (biology) and Jeffrey Katz (chemistry), CAPS is one of several programs across the nation aimed at addressing this issue. “The number of Ph.D.s who were African American, the number of doctors who were underrepresented Americans, is very low,” said Special Assistant to the President Janice Kassman, who helped implement CAPS for the
Admissions Office. “So it’s something that the scientific community—and not just Colby—is trying to rectify.”

Students spend six weeks of their summer at Colby taking courses in the mornings and doing independent research with a professor in the afternoons. The program gives them a head start in their college career, helping them get prepared so they’re less likely to become overwhelmed and lose interest in the sciences. For Philadelphia native Shamika Murray ’14, the program helped, but she says she could have benefited from even more preparation. “I would say I was ten steps back and CAPS pushed me seven,” she said. 

Beyond academic preparation, the summer experience allows students to bond and get to know the campus. They take classes in the same buildings as during the semester and live in the same dorms. “It was super beneficial towards starting my college career,” said Randy Person ’14, who came from Los Angeles, “because I didn’t have that month or so where I am trying to figure out where everything is.” And their experience is not confined to the campus. CAPS takes students on trips in Maine, including the lobster festival in Rockland and the Colby Undergraduate Summer Research Retreat, which includes student presentations and white-water rafting.

Not only do CAPS students bond with upperclassmen who are working on campus over the summer, they also get to form connections with their professors and get accustomed to Colby’s equipment. “Lab helped a lot because when I got into chemistry labs [during the semester] I kind of knew my way around,” said Murray.

CAPS 1 student Alaba Sotayo ’14 is majoring in biology with a neuroscience concentration.
CAPS students find all this helpful, but it doesn’t address another challenge these students face. Several come from urban environments, and central Maine—an area with relatively few people of color—is a new experience. “I came from a school where it’s just black, Hispanic, black, Hispanic, black, Hispanic, a few white people were in there, so mainly a minority school,” said Alaba Sotayo ’14, of Newark, N.J. “There was no minority. We were all the same thing. To come to Colby where I am a minority … was just a culture shock—like from being the majority to being the minority.”

This year’s group of 10 brought the number of CAPS participants to 23 over two years. This is a significant increase from the 20 years prior, in which 19 African Americans and 26 Hispanic Americans majored in the sciences at Colby, according to Kassman.

And CAPS students are not just interested in the sciences. They want to have an impact on the future—to see others have the opportunity they did. Some participants are involved in recruiting students from their high schools and travel with admissions officers to other schools. “From my own experience” said Murray, “I don’t want … anyone to grow up and learn about this and be like ‘I wish I was involved in something like that,’ like I did with some other programs that I could have been involved in through high school.”

Teko Mmolawa '12
Gaborone, Botswana
Majors: English & French Studies

Kyle Wehner '14
Slingerlands, New York
Major: English, creative writing concentration