By Molly McCarthy, Office of Communications, Le Moyne College
When Jesenya Olivas ’23 arrived at Le Moyne College in Fall 2019, one of the first things she did was to join Stempower: an innovative mentorship and career preparation program for women interested in working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Olivas was a biology major but, like many first-year students, she was open-minded and eager to explore the opportunities that were available to her in a variety of fields. She had a lot of questions, such as: What does it take to build a robust professional network? Where should she go to gain real-world experience as an undergraduate? And how could she effectively advocate for herself in future salary negotiations? Through her work with Stempower, Olivas began charting a new professional course for herself as a cybersecurity major.
Founded by Terri Mitchell, a 1985 Le Moyne graduate, and Meredith Tornabene, Director of the Office of Career Advising and Development, Stempower helps women who are studying these critical fields build a sense of community, grow more self-confident, and cultivate meaningful and rewarding careers.
For Mitchell, the enterprise is a deeply personal one. She spent three decades working in information technology before retiring as vice president of Watson Health Integration at IBM. Her own professional experience taught her that diverse teams arrive at better decisions than homogeneous ones—they tend to focus more on facts, to process those facts more carefully, and to be more creative in their thinking. Yet, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, just 27 percent of people working in STEM are women, a statistic that could impact the nation’s capacity to innovate and compete.
Stempower seeks to bridge this gap. At the center of the program is a dynamic peer-to-peer mentorship model in which third- and fourth-year women STEM students serve as guides to those in their first or second year of study. The older students provide the younger ones with advice, encouragement and feedback and, by extension, create a sense of community that is essential in retaining today’s students, who will become tomorrow’s engineers, doctors and data analysts.
Since Stempower’s founding during the 2019-20 academic year, 87 mentors and 101 mentees have gone through the program. Both receive guidance about how to navigate and make the most of their relationships and build trust with one another. Olivas, who was paired with fellow cybersecurity major Alexis Ess ’22, says that what she appreciates most is that Ess is “always there if I ever need help with anything,” whether that is navigating classwork or college life in general. For her part, Ess says that Stempower has helped her to better understand the professional world, from networking to résumé writing to preparing for an interview.
In just three years, the program is already proving to be a success. Several Stempower participants have completed valuable internships at such companies and organizations as the financial services company Equitable, technology giant IBM, insurance firm MetLife, and North Carolina-based civil engineering firm McAdams. Others have taken part in the Clare Booth Luce Research Scholars Program, which provides them with further research, networking and professional-development opportunities. And some have gone on to pursue graduate work at institutions like Colorado State University, Syracuse University and Tufts University. Beyond these achievements, Stempower is also attracting the attention of prospective employers, including California-based cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks, which recently held a Zoom meeting with several of its leaders and Stempower participants to speak informally and exchange ideas.
The secret of that success is not complicated, according to Mitchell.
“Skills plus confidence equals power. It’s as simple as that,” she says, “Yes, we are nurturing the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, but Stempower isn’t about imparting these students with technical skills or teaching them complex scientific formulas. They already focus on those things in Le Moyne’s classrooms. It’s about inspiring them to look to the future with boldness and confidence, and to apply that mindset to whatever they do.”
For her part, Olivas says that Stempower has provided her with a wonderful set of skills to take into her professional career, and introduced her to a community of like-minded women, both of which boost her optimism about the future. She is looking forward to a career at a cybersecurity company or a security operations center, detecting and monitoring incidents.
“Since joining the program, I’ve discovered that it’s a safe place for women in STEM to gather to talk about the professional worlds and lives after undergrad,” she says. “The other people in the program are experiencing some of the same things that I am, so they get it. It’s wonderful being part of a group of women who can always count on each other.”