RAP aids in recruiting and retaining minority students
July 26, 2010
Recruiting minority and underserved students to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois in an effort to increase diversity is the reason the Research Apprentice Program (RAP) was developed, but retaining students all the way through to graduation is the program's goal.

"What we've noticed is that RAP students who enroll in the College of ACES stay," said Jesse Thompson, assistant dean of academic programs.

"Participation in RAP is a good indicator of success in college. The students come in as freshmen, having had an intensive introduction to math and science, and with less anxiety about campus life. They already know some of the faculty, and they know where to go if they need help."

The statistics reflect the success of RAP. Minority students who have not participated in RAP leave the College at a rate of nearly 40 percent, but over 90 percent of the RAP students stay and graduate.

Thompson has been involved with RAP since it began in the early 1980s. It began as a statewide essay contest. "It was a focused recruitment effort to get students of color primarily from urban schools to look at us," Thompson said. The early RAP students were invited to campus to work in a lab 40 hours per week for eight weeks. "ACES faculty expressed concern about the appropriate level of competitiveness. Some felt that the selection process needed to be more fine-tuned," Thompson said. "It was a valid concern. We were only retaining about 40 percent of the students then. Academics was a big problem. The faculty had to spend a lot of time working with these students on the basics, instead of working on science."

Because of these concerns, the program added an educational component. Students now worked 25 hours in the lab and in the remaining hours received instruction in math, science and writing enrichment. "We wanted to prepare them for the lab experience as well as to make sure that these students had strength in core subjects," Thompson said.

Today RAP is a two-phase program attracting over 50 talented high school students to the college each summer.

"RAP 1 emerged as a six-week academic summer session and a prerequisite for RAP 2. If students can meet the academic and teamwork demands of the RAP experience, they can move on to RAP 2 in which students are paired with a faculty or graduate student mentor to work on a research project," Thompson said.

Joseph Murray will be a junior at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. Murray participated in RAP 1 in the Kraft Oscar Mayer team research project last summer and this year has been assigned to a research laboratory in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in RAP 2.

"In RAP 1 I learned a lot about product development, meat packaging, and ways to extend the shelf life of meats," Murray said. "This year I'm delving deeper into the topic. Currently, I'm working in Dr. Susan Brewer's lab using natural and synthetic antioxidants to test how they extend the life of a product. I'm testing antioxidant activity and phenolic content to see which works better to fight free radicals. At the end of the summer, I have to create a poster, write and paper and do a PowerPoint presentation about the research."

Murray said that being involved in RAP 1 and RAP 2 has broadened his career goals. "When I was younger I wanted to be a lawyer, but now I'm greatly interested in food science. I hope to do an internship at Kraft Foods."

The program has developed partnerships with industries for funding and to provide students research projects based on real-world questions. "This year, we are grateful to Kraft Foods for giving $100,000 to RAP," said Thompson. Additional corporate sponsors are Archer Daniels Midland, PepsiCo, and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. We look forward to expanding new relationships with other companies in the food and agricultural industry.

"RAP has helped transform the College of ACES by increasing diversity significantly over the past 10 years. We have become stronger in our outreach efforts and have created more goodwill in schools and communities throughout the Chicago area," Thompson said.

Alums from efforts like RAP have gone on to become engineers, marketing and research specialists, and even one dean at a university. "We've had about 10 students who are now practicing veterinarians, three are senior scientists with NutraSweet, Oscar Mayer, and Kellogg, and another who is now a professor at the University of Illinois. Our students have stepped out and are achieving," Thompson said.

For more information about RAP, visit http://summerprograms.aces.illinois.edu/