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The Path to Academic ‘Awards Season’ Student Success at Drexel

September 01, 2023

Left to right: Jocelyn Sessa, PhD; Daouda Njie (Fulbright 2023); Julian Marmo (Goldwater 2023); Sky Harper (Truman 2023); and Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal at the BIPoC-STEM Majors Night at the Academy of Natural Sciences at an event in May, which was hosted by LSAMP and the Academy.
Left to right: Jocelyn Sessa, PhD; Daouda Njie (Fulbright 2023); Julian Marmo (Goldwater 2023); Sky Harper (Truman 2023); and Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal at the BIPoC-STEM Majors Night at the Academy of Natural Sciences at an event in May, which was hosted by LSAMP and the Academy.

First came the Truman Scholarship announcement in April, followed almost immediately by the one about the Goldwater Scholarship and then the one about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

These are some of the most prestigious national and international scholarships for U.S. college students. Three of the Drexel University students who received these awards are longtime members of Drexel’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program for underrepresented minority students in STEM disciplines. Four other Dragons received Fulbrights, and three other Dragons received the Goldwater Scholarship.

For those students, the awards were both recognitions of their past accomplishments and a gateway into their next steps into graduate school and post-graduate research. For Drexel’s LSAMP Director Marisol Rodriguez Mergenthal, it was a huge and well-deserved accomplishment and pay-off for the students she’s worked with for months and years — and not just for those specific opportunities either.

“Is it serendipitous that three students got these big awards all at the same time? Yes, but it doesn’t surprise me that these students were all in the center of this,” she said.

Those Dragons are:

  • Sky Harper, chemistry ‘24, who won the Truman Scholarship, which awards up to $30,000 toward a graduate degree in public-service related fields. Similar to a fellowship, Truman also provides career and professional development opportunities, including internships. The Truman is given to about 50 students per year. Harper previously received the 2022-2023 Goldwater Fellowship and the Udall Fellowship in 2022.
  • Julian Marmo, electrical and computer engineering ‘24, who received the Goldwater Scholarship, which supports students who pursue research careers and foster excellence in STEM fields and funds his final year of undergraduate study. The Goldwater is given to about 400 STEM students per year.
  • Daouda Njie, environmental science ‘22, who received a Fulbright Study/Research Grant for a year of paid research to study sea grass meadows in Fiji. As one of the largest academic exchanges in the world, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides over 2,000 grants per year in 140 countries.

She met those students during their first terms at Drexel, and has helped them along their academic, research and career journeys at the University, as she does with all undergraduate students who meet LSAMP requirements. She connects them not only to the LSAMP community to meet with peers on similar journeys, but also to resources and people across Drexel.

For her, that means getting to know students on and off their résumés and CVs and transcripts, and reviewing and promoting their excellence however they need it. That can involve everything from putting them in touch with a specific contact for help or guidance to reviewing applications for specific programs. Many of these students have received multiple external awards and scholarships as well as internal opportunities at Drexel, like the STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program for first-year research, which Harper and Njie participated in.

“These students are doing the work and connecting the dots between opportunities and resources, which aren’t always linear and isn’t always easy,” she said. 

One of those connections is with Leah Gates, associate director in Drexel’s Undergraduate Research & Enrichment Programs (UREP), which oversees support for internal and external student research and scholarship opportunities and also helps students find faculty mentors, research opportunities and funding. UREP and LSAMP overlap on and promote various student opportunities, and Gates and Rodriguez Mergenthal both work closely to provide support and connections to students. As such, in her role as a fellowships adviser, Gates worked closely with all three students for months leading up to individual application deadlines, and for years as they continually apply for opportunities through UREP.

“It is really satisfying to see how students are benefiting from the structures of support we have been working with partners like LSAMP to build, so now those students use the resources, opportunities and encouragement they receive at each stage of their journey as a foundation from which to build their next steps. That’s what we want to continue building for students in the future,” said Gates.

Read on to learn more about these three Dragons and how they have been involved with LSAMP:

Sky Harper

Chemistry ‘24, College of Arts and Sciences

Truman Scholarship ’23, Goldwater Fellowship '22–23, Udall Fellowship '22

In addition to receiving the Truman Scholarship this year, Harper also received the Goldwater and Udall scholarships last year, making him Drexel’s first-ever Triple Crown recipient of those three highly competitive national scholarships. The Udall Foundation Scholarship is given to about 50 students per year, awarding up to $7,000 to students who are committed to leadership and public service in Native American nations or the environment. Harper was the first Drexel student to receive the Udall in the category of Native American health care.

Harper is a first-generation student from the Navajo Nation and founder and president of the Drexel Indigenous Students of the Americas student organization; through UREP and the Pennoni Honors College, which houses UREP, he is a member of the Honors Program, STAR Scholars, Aspire Scholars and Supernova Undergraduate Research Fellows. He is also a part-time teaching assistant in organic chemistry and an LSAMP student ambassador (through which he gained leadership experience and developed transferable leadership skills, he noted).

“I often tell my peers and faculty mentors/advisers that the LSAMP program and UREP are the two places on campus where I feel the most supported and encouraged. These two offices have allowed me to make the most of my Drexel experience,” he said.

Rodriguez Mergenthal and LSAMP offered academic advising and support for graduate school as well as crafting applications for scholarships and fellowships, providing letters of recommendation, and funding Harper’s travel to Chicago last year to give an oral presentation at the American Chemical Society.

“Above all, however, I feel one of the most important things that LSAMP has done, has been cultivating an intimate community of BIPOC students, where we support each other through open discussions and utilize the safe space to talk through any issues we may face as a marginalized population on or off campus,” said Harper. “It is human nature to seek others who can empathize with and who you can relate to. LSAMP has given us the platform to do this in a place where it can be hard to find a space for more candid conversations.”

Julian Marmo

Electrical and computer engineering ‘24, College of Engineering

Goldwater Scholarship ‘23

With the Goldwater Scholarship, Marmo will receive funding for his final year of undergraduate study for his STEM concentration. He’s currently on co-op as a research engineer at the Army Research Laboratory (the Army’s central laboratory) and works with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Gary Friedman, PhD, in the Plasma and Magnetics Laboratory. After Marmo designed a prototype, Friedman introduced him to a colleague, Diego Colombara from the University of Genoa in Italy, and Marmo has since joined their collaborative project,

REusable MAsk Patterning (REMAP) to design a method to construct reconfigurable masks to be used in optical projection lithography. 

With so much of his time spent on research, he’s now working on a NSF grant. “After you kind of cross that initial threshold, it kind of just comes pouring in,” he said about applying for, and hopefully receiving, grants.

“I’m very fortunate to have great connections and great mentors and a lot of really amazing people on my side that are willing to go to bat for me at any time,” said Marmo.

He transferred to Drexel two years ago, but has been involved with LSAMP for almost as long as he’s been at the University.

“I didn’t know about any clubs, activities, literally anything, and I got an email from Marisol one day about opportunities, and I emailed her back and we set up a meeting about what LSAMP is and what she’s trying to do and accomplish across the campus, and it resonated with me. I’ve been involved ever since,” he said. 

Daouda Njie

Environmental science ‘22, College of Arts and Sciences

Fulbright Study/Research Grant ’23

With his Fulbright scholarship, Njie will study seagrass meadows in Fiji to “understand how sea grass meadows can be used to help combat against climate change,” he said, adding, “I hope this experience will not only be a chance to grow my academic career in marine science but also be an opportunity for personal growth while learning about Fijian culture.” (He plans to document his experience through photography and video on Instagram, @daouda_njie.)

A Liberty Scholar student, Njie first became involved with LSAMP during his freshman year, and LSAMP helped connect him with more minority students on campus while Rodriguez Mergenthal provided support during academic and personal struggles with isolation and culture shock during his first two quarters. Later, as a STAR Scholar the summer before his second year, he presented research on making hunting hotspot maps of chimpanzees in Cameroon with anthropogenic activity, and he later completed a study abroad trip to Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea (where Drexel has had a longstanding partnership).

“When I needed funding to purchase my plane ticket, Marisol graciously offered to cover the cost of my flights for the program,” said Njie. “That life-changing experience on Bioko ultimately which made me switch majors from biology to environmental science.”

He then took a co-op at the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Invertebrate Paleontology Department with Jocelyn A. Sessa, PhD, associate curator and associate professor in Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES). Sessa is a LSAMP advisory board member who has been involved in the program ever since her first months at Drexel in 2017 (which started, naturally, with a connection to Rodriguez Mergenthal).

“I jokingly call him the chief morale officer of the lab,” Sessa said. “His co-op started in March 2020 and was supposed to be in the museum working in the collections, but then with the COVID-19 pandemic everything was changed. We started doing daily Zoom meetings at 9 a.m. and he would be there every day at 9 a.m. — not 9:01 or 9:02. He brought so much positivity, and his personality really came out through Zoom.”

After graduating from Drexel last year, Njie worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences as a field technician and curatorial assistant. He credits Academy scientists and BEES faculty with encouraging him to apply for the Fulbright after he presented research on how changes in tidal regimes effect marsh plant growth — which he hopes to expand through his time as a Fulbright and through graduate school.