URBANA, Ill. – Illinois 4-H member Aja Capel of Urbana is on a mission to help minority students – especially girls – consider careers in STEM. Her efforts are gaining a lot more traction, thanks to a recent video profile by NBC News Learning.
To help bring her vision to life, Capel launched See Me in STEM, an education and empowerment program that exposes youth to STEM topics through events, camps, and classes. Through this platform, Capel has provided nearly 900 hours of hands-on experience for more than 200 underrepresented youth over the past year.
"The challenges I have faced are the racial, gender, and age biases that exist in American society. I am often the only African American girl in the class or at the event. I am also usually a few years younger than the cohort,” Capel says.
“That look of, ‘Oh you must be in the wrong place,’ when I walk through the door got old very quick. I am a very strong and driven person but when you are the ‘only,' it weighs on you,” she adds. “There was a short time when I questioned if STEM was for me; when I began to buy into the world’s definition of who STEM was for. But then I had parents, teachers, and 4-H mentors who helped me overwrite that script and gave me opportunities to see engineering was for me.
“This is what I am striving to provide for other kids who look like me.”
An active member of Illinois 4-H, Aja has worked under the guidance of mentors Alvarez Dixon and Keith Jacobs, both Illinois 4-H specialists, to deepen her technical skills and explore strategies for leading and educating students.
“Aja is a force. The will and determination she has to overcome obstacles and to blaze a trail into spaces where far too few like her ever get the chance to go is nothing short of inspiring,” Dixon says.
“I was there when she was the only girl on the robotics team. I witnessed her maturity and the strength of her response during moments when she may have felt unwelcome, perhaps because she is gifted, or because she’s a girl, or because she’s black. She’s a great example of a student who became the teacher,” he adds.
The NBC profile is not Capel’s only national exposure. She was recently named one of the top five youth high school volunteers in the United States as a recent recipient of a Prudential Spirit of Community award, a national program that honors youth for their volunteer community service.
“Illinois Extension offers a sincere congratulations to Aja and all of the other youth who are leading and innovating to drive change and empower their peers. Kudos on making great things happen!” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of University of Illinois Extension and Outreach.
Capel attends Urbana High School part-time and takes online classes through ASU Prep Digital Academy, an online high school that provides an accelerated path towards university admission. She plans to study mechanical engineering with a concentration in robotics.