Do you remember when you made a decision that completely changed your life? I do. It was a Friday afternoon in November 2016, and I had received a save-the-date email for the 2017 IINSPIRE LSAMP conference earlier that week. A wild idea crossed my mind that I couldn’t shake off. I mustered up some courage that afternoon and decided to try. Worst case scenario, I would get a no. I vividly remember how excited I was as I drafted that email. Maybe a little too excited. Thanks to Grinnell College allowing alums to retain their emails, I can share the last 87 words of the 570-word email that I sent to the IINSPIRE LSAMP Program Manager at the time, Danielle Mitchell.
“.. the main reason why I am emailing you is because I saw the email about the LSAMP conference in Ames next year, and while I am no longer an undergraduate, I am still interested in remaining in contact with the undergrads I met over the years at the conference to see how they are progressing in their academic career as well as the research that they are conducting. So my question is, is LSAMP/IINSPIRE able to fund post-baccalaureate students if I were interested in attending the conference?” 11/18/2016 at 3:06 pm EDT
Did you chuckle at my run-on sentence? Or the 5 million reasons I gave to make it harder for Dani to say no? Well, ten days passed by- no response. So I sent a follow-up email. The next day, I was invited to submit a conference session proposal to host a student experiences panel. Cue imposter syndrome, panic, and fear. Host a panel?!? I only wanted to reconnect with the current IINSPIRE students, listen to their poster presentations, and motivate them- but now, I was being asked to do something I have never done before- lead a conference session. I summoned up some courage and submitted my first conference session proposal. With the help of Dani, four IINSPIRE scholars, Paul Faronbi (Iowa State University ‘16), Alfredo Colina (Grinnell College ‘17), Gwendolyn Fine (University of Northern Iowa ‘14), and Lizeth Tamayo (Augustana College ‘15) joined my panel. I relaxed when I saw familiar faces would be joining me on the stage. I created and shared a Google Document with guided questions, and hoped we wouldn’t need them.
The conference exceeded my expectations. Despite the frigid Iowa-in-February-temperatures, it was heartwarming to reconnect with familiar friendly faces, professors, mentors, new students, campus directors, and program managers. My excitement was palpable. I was impressed with the student sessions and the caliber of the research being conducted during the poster session. One of the highlights of the conference was the private screening of Hidden Figures at the Ames Cinemark made available to all students and faculty. I was in awe of the level of excellence displayed by the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Another highlight was when I became the first recipient of the Outstanding IINSPIRE LSAMP Alumni Award. It was so humbling to be recognized and I could not wait to inspire students at the last session of the conference with my panel.
Afterward, I shared my encounter with the enthusiastic gentleman with Paul. We mulled over what an alumni group could look like and what it would entail then decided to follow-up soon. Due to our busy work schedules, “soon” was five months later. Around the Fourth of July holiday, we drafted a statement of purpose that included a mission, goals, and a recruitment letter for students. The IINSPIRE LSAMP Alumni Committee (ILAC) was officially launched on July 6, 2017, and was gladly embraced by Dani Mitchell and the rest of the IINSPIRE LSAMP steering committee.
Our mission was simple but the process was not. ILAC aimed to unite IINSPIRE alumni to facilitate a successful undergraduate career for current students via conferences, workshops, and virtual discussions. In our first year, Paul and I recruited nine alumni and hosted a student-only panel at the 2018 conference. The students asked pertinent questions that included how to explain their research to family members and starting a family. Recognizing the impact that we could make with more help, we established an ILAC Leadership Team (ILT) to assist with alumni recruitment and the development of a mentoring program. The only problem was that we selected six of the most active alumni to be part of the ILT. As a result, we had too much help and not enough engagement from our alumni. We had a Treasurer without a budget! Leading a team eager to help without enough work was challenging due to some feeling like their position was not essential to the team’s success. Despite this, we led a networking session and interactive dialogue with the current students at the 2019 Conference. Instead of sitting in front and answering a few questions, we thought it would be better to visit every table and have a personalized discussion with them. We also held our first opportunity fair where 40 students signed up for alumni mentors. Our biggest hurdle was maintaining and improving response rates from alumni and students. Some alumni mentors expressed frustration over their inability to successfully connect with their assigned mentee. Even though I didn’t anticipate these difficulties, I was determined to find an effective way to solve these recurring problems.
I made the difficult, but necessary, decision to take a step back and check-in quarterly with the new ILT in October 2019. I wish I could tell you that I came up with a solution in a week. It wasn’t until after the February 2020 IINSPIRE Conference, that I thoroughly reflected on my personal challenges as an undergraduate student. I recalled that most of my missed opportunities were due to work. What I really needed was financial assistance. I worked several hours a week to pay for books and other materials I needed for my classes. I sometimes avoided courses that required expensive books because I knew I could not afford them. My self-reflection led to the development of three new initiatives: the Lending Library, Sponsorship Program, and ILAC Awards. The purpose of the initiatives is to meet the growing need for textbooks, test preparatory books, and alleviate financial hardships that current IINSPIRE scholars face. What if an alum couldn’t connect with a student because the student had picked up a dinner shift in the dining hall? Instead of reprimanding the student for missing their mentoring session, a small act of generosity could have made a difference in their life. To help alleviate personal, academic, professional, and financial burdens exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, ILAC participated in its first Giving Tuesday in December 2020. Thanks to the generosity of 21 alumni, friends, family, the steering committee, and anonymous matching sponsors, ILAC raised enough money to distribute 10 $150 ILAC Awards to IINSPIRE Students during the 2021 Annual Conference!
A “wild” idea, overly long email, unanticipated panel, timely encouragement, intentional collaboration, and persistent teamwork birthed the ILAC. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I never sent Dani that email. How many students would have missed out on an opportunity to connect with alumni through our new mentoring program, or receive free STEM textbooks and preparatory books, or ILAC Awards to assist with financial hardships? Serving the ILAC as a Founder, Co-President, Historian, and Treasurer over the years has been a very humbling and fulfilling experience. We are just getting started. Thank YOU! Yes, YOU reading this. The fact that you’ve read this far down means a lot. If you happen to also be a monthly sponsor, thank you squared! Sincerely. ILAC’s new initiatives are launching because of you. If you’re not a monthly sponsor, I hope you consider it. Any amount helps! (I can’t help it- I am currently serving as Treasurer, after all.)
I would be remiss not to acknowledge the phenomenal leadership teams and engaged members that have supported ILAC with their time, resources, skills, and money. Thank you cubed! I did not want to name names but there are three people that I am exceedingly grateful towards. First, Dr. Alice Nadeau, for being the first ILAC Sponsor. Her financial support in our mission and initiatives has instilled clarity and confidence in me that is now unshakeable. Next is my co-founder, Paul Faronbi, who believed in my wild idea and whose connections have propelled our mission to a national level. And finally, Myra Rose James, a renaissance woman that has become a dear friend and pillar in ILAC. Her valiant leadership and ability to materialize ideas are unparalleled.
Before you go about your day, I implore you, DO NOT let the fear of failing keep you from starting something that you are passionate about. Someone is counting on that idea. You know, that idea that you wished someone did for you? The one that keeps coming back when you daydream about a better world? Yes, that one. Write it down. No, seriously. Pull out a pen and paper. Write it down. Then brainstorm the steps you need to take to get started. It will take time but it does not have to be polished or perfect. As long as it could help make a difference in one person’s life, it is worth doing. Believe in yourself and your mission! You are BRAVE- brilliant, relatable, astounding, valiant, and enough. Before you know it, people will gravitate towards your confidence and offer ways to help you achieve your goal. Be careful to discern between those that are coming near to help from those coming near to tear you down and instill fear and doubt. Surround yourself with people that believe in you. When (not if) things get hard, your support system will be vital. Will they be able to step in when you need a break? Remind you of other hurdles you have already overcome? Make you laugh until you cry with a funny story?
Worst case scenario, ILAC fails. Would that make me a failure? If an airbag doesn’t deploy in a test crash, is the car to blame? No. The systems and processes in place to deploy the airbag were not effective. Go back to the drawing board and make changes. When I ruminate about how far ILAC has come, I am astonished by how much that Friday afternoon email has not only changed my life but will change the lives of many others. I am beyond honored to be a part of this journey. I am certain that ILAC is going to accomplish many remarkable feats in the coming months and years. Here’s to making a difference, one email at a time.
Recruited 9 members
Hosted panel at 2018 Conference
Recruited 20 alumni
Hosted ILAC’s first opportunity fair at Conference
Hosted two sessions at Conference
Launched pilot mentoring program with 40 students
Launched Instagram account and Facebook and LinkedIn group
Published first Newsletter
Published first Annual Report
Recruited 26 alumni
Hosted 3 workshops, 4 panels, and 2 resource fairs at IINSPIRE LSAMP ILSAMP, Indiana LSAMP Conference, and LSMRCE Summer Speaker Series
Launched Alumni Highlights
Published Annual Report
Recruited 40 alumni
Obtained Nonprofit Status
Launched ILAC Website
Launched the Sponsorship Program
Launched ILAC Award
Launched Revamped Mentorship Program
Launched Lending Library
Launched ILAC Blog
Launched ILAC Gives Back
Launched Meet an Alum
Launched National LSAMP Alumni Group
Bought ILAC Merchandise
Created Twitter Account, Facebook, and LinkedIn Pages
*As of December 15, 2020
Edited by: Rachel Alvarado and Myra James