Rice Emerging Scholars Program helps new students adapt to academic life at Rice

After almost five years on campus, the Rice Emerging Scholars Program (RESP) has helped more than 145 incoming students familiarize themselves with the challenges of academic life at Rice. Aimed at students of exceptional promise but whose high school preparation might make the early college years particularly difficult, RESP broadly addresses academic and nonacademic barriers to success for new students seeking a career in science or engineering.


Ivan Arizpe, Audrey Odwuor and Briana Farias. Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow

Established in 2012, RESP is designed to acquaint incoming first-year students with the demanding pace, depth and rigor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses at Rice. Students begin the comprehensive program the summer before matriculation with a six-week summer academic challenge in the STEM fields and continue for at least two more years after arriving on campus. The summer component comprises lectures, homework and exams on the most difficult topics students encounter in their first year on campus, together with guidance for thriving in Rice’s STEM environment.

With support largely from the Chao and Hearst foundations, the program has included about 25 students each summer for the past four years, but thanks to nearly $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program will expand to at least 40 students for the next five years.

Megan McSpedon, RESP associate director, said the grant will expand the program’s impact. “We at RESP believe strongly that a student’s academic preparation does not determine their potential to succeed. We are committed to ensuring that students from all backgrounds are supported in becoming world-class scientists and engineers. We are thrilled to receive this generous support from the NSF which will significantly grow the number of scholars in the program and fund research allowing us to share best practices on a national scale.”

McSpedon said 86 percent of the group from the Class of 2018 that began in RESP in 2014 declared a STEM major last spring. That retention is exceptional, McSpedon said, since only 57 percent of a similarly prepared group that entered at the same time also declared a STEM major. The retention of the RESP participants even outpaced the 75 percent rate of Rice students who declared an interest in STEM in the spring before their freshman year and later declared a major in those areas.

Sam Agniel, a McMurtry College freshman studying engineering, said she was initially hesitant to participate in RESP, because it essentially meant starting college early. She had no idea that she would be “excelling like (she is) now with the knowledge and skills learned from (the program).”

She called the program “a learning experience,” but not just inside the classroom. She said that facing a semester’s worth of material in six weeks was daunting but was about more than getting a head start on classes. She used the challenges from the experience to motivate her to do better, be transparent with others and not be afraid to ask for help.

“I was not the only person who did not understand the class lectures, and sometimes a little courage to ask a clarifying question could take a few students a long way,” she said.

Agniel said that RESP also continues to be an active resource.

Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow

Ivan Arizpe, Briana Farias and Audrey Odwuor. Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow

“I meet with the professional staff of RESP once a week to debrief and discuss anything that RESP may be able to help me with,” she said. “From helping me find a tutor to helping me through day-to-day issues, RESP continues to be a resource imperative to my success here at Rice.”

Ivan Arizpe, a Hanszen College freshman and participant in RESP, said he was a little intimidated by the fact that he was the first in his family to go to college.

“I felt nervous about my transition from high school and had no idea what to expect from all the changes I would face, especially in academics,” he said. “But I could not have made a better decision in preparing myself for life at Rice. Since RESP was structured to simulate the fast-paced and challenging academics found here, I was able to find studying practices that worked best for me while having the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Arizpe also said that the RESP fellows — upperclassmen from Rice and many RESP alumni who dedicated their summer to participating in the program and providing academic guidance — were especially helpful.

“They gave us their own unique insight on being a successful student at Rice,” he said. “Having them be there for us throughout the summer as mentors fostered a great learning experience.”

Briana Farias, a McMurtry College freshman, said RESP offered her the opportunity to learn and make a habit out of studying every day and being diligent when completing assignments.

“I learned how to become more independent when approaching problems and continuing even when I was stuck,” she said. “Even now, I feel that collaborating with others has allowed me to be more efficient and understand concepts more easily. Also, the resources at Rice are never-ending, and I am always able to get help when necessary.”

Audrey Odwuor, a Wiess College senior majoring in Earth science, participated in RESP as an incoming freshman and served as a fellow in 2015.

“In my time at Rice, I’ve never been afraid to take challenging classes in subjects I’ve never been exposed to or that I didn’t understand in high school,” she said. “The mentality RESP equipped me with allowed me to try new things, give them my best effort and move on when necessary.”

Last winter, Odwuor decided to apply for the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP). Odwuor said she is still receiving benefits she never expected.

“I’ve wanted to be a NASA astronaut since my freshman year, after hearing a talk as a RESP scholar from Dr. Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and now a Rice professor,” she said. As a RESP fellow, she also attended a talk by Ron Garan, another former NASA astronaut, who ultimately inspired her to apply for the NASA program.

Odwuor said that SARP was open to undergraduate STEM majors across the country, and as someone hoping for a future with NASA, she took a chance and applied.

“A couple of months later, I found out that I was one of 32 students selected to participate in SARP in the summer of 2016,” she said. “As a participant, I was to spend the summer in Southern California collecting air quality data, designing a research project based around the data. Until this summer and SARP, I didn’t know that I could have such a deep interest in any kind of research.”

Odwuor said what she learned by participating in RESP motivated her to apply for SARP, an experience that changed her life in ways that she never could have predicted.

“RESP taught me to dream big and have faith in myself, and as someone who is literally shooting for the stars, I can honestly say that I’m doing my best,” she said.

Cesar Udave ’16 was in the first RESP cohort in 2012 and was a fellow in 2014. He agreed that RESP made him realize that an engineering degree from Rice requires extremely hard work, but that there are many groups at Rice available to provide support.

“Rice academics intimidated me, but RESP made it very clear that they wanted me to succeed and were willing to help,” Udave said. “I learned very early during the program the value of asking for help. The ability to forgo my pride and ask for help facilitated my academic life during undergrad and has continued to facilitate my life in my full-time job.

“I have always said, and will continue to say, that RESP facilitated my transition from an academic environment in high school, where learning everything came naturally, to an environment at Rice, where grasping the complex concepts of engineering was no longer effortless,” he said. “RESP conveyed to me the idea that I could do it, and four years later I did do it. I graduated as a mechanical engineer.”

For more information on RESP, visit www.success.rice.edu/resp/.


About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.