Yazan was thinking about interning at a hospital or clinic to gain professional experience but as summer 2020 approached, he found all internships and job opportunities were being cancelled due to COVID-19. When he was accepted to LSA's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) virtual summer research program, he said, "I was super excited that the program would continue [through the pandemic] and the accommodations made me feel welcomed and supported. Automatically I knew this would be a great experience regardless if it was virtual."

Yazan is amongst 45 other Michigan community college students who participated in UROP's Community College Summer Research Fellowship Program (CCSFP) in 2020. CCSFP is a full-time, paid summer research fellowship, open to any community college student in the state of Michigan who has earned a minimum of 30 credits at their home institution. 

The program aims to make transferring from a community college to the campus of four-year university more accessible for a diverse student population, including women and historically underrepresented students, first generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and veterans. Although transferring to a four-year institution is one of the goals of the program, it is not the only one.  

"Not all students want to transfer to a four-year institution and that is fine. Some students just want to have this professional opportunity to leverage themselves in their careers, develop self-confidence, or to explore multiple interests they have and, to us, that is success," said Dr. Michelle Ferrez, UROP Director.

CCSFP encourages students to freely explore their curiosity and passion. They also get the chance to work with top researchers to develop a set of skills that will benefit the student throughout their professional and academic trajectory, no matter what they decide to do.

Since 2005, the majority of UROP’s CCSFP research fellows (92%) are first generation college students, and most (98%) are Pell Grant recipients. Historically, CCSFP students have represented between 14 and 18 community colleges across Michigan. The summer 2020 cohort included three military veterans and one formerly incarcerated returning citizen. Ninety-five percent of students in the cohort were over the age of 25.

Bright spots in the pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic created a completely different context and new challenges for CCSFP, in some cases the virtual format actually eliminated participation challenges for students by providing flexibility and easier access.

One fellow, Katelynn, noted, "As a mom, I did not have to worry about childcare, and the UROP staff and my research mentor were so understanding and flexible with me. I had research benchmarks each week and my research mentor would always check on me and my well-being. As an adult student, CCSFP made me feel that my personal experiences also mattered and that I had a lot to contribute to my field of interest."

The timing of the pandemic and the summer research fellowship program also created new opportunities, especially around novel COVID-related research projects in diverse disciplines. Representative CCSFP research included projects such as "Caregiving of Post-ICU COVID Patients in a Time of Social Distancing," "Multiple Roles of Women of Color in Academia During COVID," and the "The Grassroots Politics of COVID in the United States."

The "Living on Loss of Privilege" video series, created with LSA's Carceral State Project, adressed a pandemic-related topic, isolation, from a unique perspective. The series features formerly incarcerated individuals sharing their wisdom about surviving isolation in prison to help those sheltering in place have better coping strategies in the current pandemic. Two formerly incarcerated CCSFP fellows, Cozine Welch (producer) and Adam Kouraimi (production assistant), worked on the research project.

"When I applied to CCSFP I thought I would be judged on my past and wouldn't have a chance to participate," said Kouraimi. "But I was quickly told, 'that was then, this is now.' I felt accepted, acknowledged, and that I had something to contribute."

Developing committed learners

UROP's primary goal, since it was established in 1989, has been to increase undergraduate student retention and academic achievement through engagement in high quality research projects that encourage scholarly and creative inquiry. Students are guided through the research process by U-M faculty and graduate student research mentors.

CCSFP understands that each scholar’s journey is unique. The distinctive experiences offered by the program are tailored to students’ interests and serve as a valuable opportunity for exploration. Through their research projects, fellows develop deeper insights into the fields of study they have an interest in pursuing to determine whether it’s a good fit for them.

UROP data and tracking of summer fellows idicates that CCSFP is successful in both attracting and retaining high potential transfer students. From 2017 to 2020, 84% of CCSFP fellows were admitted to U-M Ann Arbor or another four-year institution within two years of completing the program. Such success can be attributed to the supports UROP has built into the program, including professional training in research specifically for the community college cohort, and required attendance at the research seminar that convenes the CCSFP learning community on a weekly basis. Fellows also have access to peer facilitators, students who have participated in CCSFP and now attend U-M and can advise fellows on everything from how to communicate with faculty to developing a final research presentation.

"As a former participant of the program, I knew I wanted to give back to UROP, and specifically CCSFP, by serving as a peer facilitator. It shaped who I am today. It built my confidence as a U-M student, as a researcher, and it gave me a deeper understanding of research and the research process," said Ri Harris, U-M and UROP CCSFP alumnus. "As a community college student, you don’t have this type of opportunity and if you do, it is at a minimal level. I wanted to empower community college students and be a small part in their journey."

A part of something big

The program fosters a sense of belonging at the University of Michigan. Building one-on-one connections with professors, faculty researchers, and graduate students prior to enrollment is especially useful in helping transfer students navigate this large step in their lives and academic careers. They also benefit from membership in a supportive cohort of individuals with similar backgrounds. It all leads to greater confidence in the transfer process and a smoother transition overall—as well as richer academic, professional, and personal networks. 

"CCSFP has allowed me to fully understand what academia and research entails. When I started the program, I thought research was something that just existed at a university and in specific fields, such as STEM," said Aracely, a 2020 CCSFP Fellow. "I feel that I learned and grew so much and the experience showed me how research addresses societal problems and how we can bridge research with practice—it is iterative. I left the program not only feeling informed and better equipped to conduct research, but I felt motivated to learn and question things around me."

"I continue to have a great relationship with my research mentor, the program staff, and a number of the community college participants," agreed Totti, another 2020 Fellow. "It is an invaluable network that continues to support me and expose me to even more professional opportunities."

Students, faculty, and staff listen to a research presentation at the 2019 UROP Summer Research Symposium.

Making opportunity acessible

The decision to dedicate an entire summer to research is not an easy one for many students, however. These weeks represent a prime opportunity to work and save money for the upcoming fall and winter academic semesters. Thanks to a generous grant from the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation, CCSFP fellows receive up to $5,000 to compensate for the 25-35 hours each week they spend on their research. Those who live outside of Wayne or Washtenaw counties may also qualify for housing and/or transportation aid. The grants are critical to making this unique summer research opportunity accessible to community college students.

UROP Director Dr. Ferrez and Professor Vasti Torres at the Indiana School of Education and Policy Studies are in the midst of a longitudinal research study on the UROP CCSFP program and its student alumni. A preliminary study was done in Summer 2020 on the CCSFP program and the 2020 cohort.

"Based on research in higher education and on community college students, over 60% of low-income and minoritized students begin their postsecondary journey at a community college," said Dr. Ferrez. "Yet it is estimated that around 30% of community college students transfer to a four-year institution and fewer students (less than 20%) transfer to a highly selective four-year institution like the University of Michigan. When you factor in those numbers, you quickly realize the value of UROP's Community College Summer Research Fellowship Program."

Stories and Voices of UROP Summer Research Fellows

Patti Aaron, the Kahns' daughter and a trustee of the Kahn Foundation, has been a champion of the program from the beginning. Consistent support from the Kahn Foundation has had a dramatic effect. Since 2013, when the foundation began supporting the program, participation has steadily increased each year, from 17 fellows in 2012 to 46 in 2020.