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Austin Peay’s CoSTEM Stars program pairs students with faculty mentors

By: Colby Wilson October 19, 2023

Dr. Allen Chaparadza.
Dr. Allen Chaparadza.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - With all the demands placed on typical college students, it can be easy to fall into a pattern —class, study, eat, home, maybe a part-time job, try to remember to eat again, social life, grab some sleep where you can — and that doesn’t leave much time for connecting with peers or professors and maximizing the collegiate experience.

Dr. Allen Chaparadza, the Austin Peay State University College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics’ (STEM) associate dean for student success, wants to offer guidance to anyone who needs it through the CoSTEM Stars program.

The way Chaparadza sees it, every professor can relate to some part of a student’s struggle. It can be hard to navigate the college experience, whether as a first-time, first-semester freshman or a self-assured senior trying to find a landing spot after graduation.

For some, the college experience continues after walking the stage. Chaparadza has been invited to officiate the wedding for a former student who connected with the Austin Peay chemistry professor and asked him to oversee the proceedings on his big day.

Chaparadza knows the value of building lasting relationships with professors, so he established the CoSTEM Stars program a year ago to pair students with faculty members who can help with whatever collegiate life might throw at them.

Designed to run the spectrum from classroom concerns to research topics to simply checking in, CoSTEM Stars isn’t just meant for the highest-achieving students on campus. It’s for those who want advice and counsel navigating unfamiliar terrain, whether their concerns are academic, social or career-based.

“I was looking for some guidance on how to go about getting a job in my field,” said senior computer information technology major Nygell Bradley. “I went to the initial meeting and met Dr. [Gilbert] Pitts, who works on the Tennessee Academy of Science’s website and let me do some work to get some experience and put it on my resume. His wife also helped me out because she works with databases, and that’s where my concentration is; she passed along some internships I might be interested in. What I’ve gained from CoSTEM Stars has been invaluable to me.”

As professors across campus are being leaned on less for academic advising thanks to new initiatives that brought dedicated advisers to campus, Chaparadza and others are looking for other ways to connect outside the classroom.

While having dedicated advisers helps students remain on a degree-seeking track, Chaparadza said advisement was an avenue for connection between professors and students that has been severed. CoSTEM Stars aims to bring the human element back into the equation of the student-professor relationship.

“The data shows that we lose most of our students between the first and second year,” he said. “Developing a deeper connection between students and faculty might be very helpful in terms of retention, and we—faculty—can see these things coming; we know how difficult the experience can be, especially for a first-time, first-generation student.”

Chaparadza said college can be an intimidating and high-pressure environment for first-time students. He sees CoSTEM Stars as a release valve, giving students someone they can talk to who views them as more than a name on the enrollment list.

“We can fail the student, but we cannot fail the person,” he said. “Just because you cannot answer a few questions on an exam does not mean you failed as a human being. We need to get outside the confines of the classroom and show students that besides being educators, we are also humans like everybody else.”

Chaparadza said the program’s impact has been encouraging, leading to some ambitious hopes as it enters its second year. His goals include off-campus events, further program refinement and additional faculty involvement.

“A large percentage of our students say they want mentoring, which coincides with what we’re trying to put in place here,” Chaparadza said.

There’s not a peer component built into the program yet, but Chaparadza can see the advantage in the years to come as young students become campus leaders and new students looking for advice come to campus.

Furthermore, Chaparadza hopes these partnerships will continue to drive investment from faculty as they provide the framework for effective mentorship, working alongside the advising staff to ensure students are getting the best advice.

The students who have been impacted can attest to the efforts behind CoSTEM Stars and believe their successes will reflect well on the program overall.

“Give it a chance because you never know what you might find,” Bradley said. “As we were going through introductions, I wasn’t sure it would be for me in computer science, but when I talked to Dr. Chaparadza, he knew plenty of people in that department and got me connected. You never know when you might make an unexpected connection that could be beneficial to your future.”