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Mentorship Forged Through the Columbia Girls In STEM Initiative Lasts Well Beyond a Week in the Summer

Last summer, as a rising high school junior, Ashley Onumonu joined the Columbia Girls in STEM initiative week in Washington, D.C.. She knew she would spend a week upping her science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills but she did not realize the experience would leave her with a lifelong mentorship connection with instructor and author Robin Stevens Payes.

Columbia University's School of Professional Studies launched the Columbia Girls in STEM Initiative five years ago to address the gender gap across STEM fields. Working with underrepresented populations, the initiative aims to prepare its participants to enter those fields in college or the workforce. 

Through the program, students are exposed to STEM professionals. We sat down with Robin and Ashley to discuss how the week-long initiative has led to continuous mentorship and learning for both of them. 

Meeting at the Girls in STEM Initiative Week in Washington D.C.

Robin Stevens Payes is the author and creator of Edge of Yesterday (EOY), a teen time-travel book series that follows thirteen-year-old Charley Morton as she attempts to build a time machine so that she can meet her idol, the Renaissance genius,  Leonardo Da Vinci. 

It was Robin’s passion for introducing teen girls to STEM and STEAM initiatives that led her to teach as part of Columbia’s Girls in STEM program. 

Ashley Onumonu is a high school junior whose favorite subject is science. 

“Growing up, I looked forward to the science fair because I loved doing experiments and testing theories,” Ashley said.

I loved Columbia Girls in STEM. It taught me a lot about networking, creating a STEM sisterhood, coding, and how to prepare yourself for a future in STEM. Through the program, I was able to meet other girls interested in STEM like me and mentors I could always talk to if I was in need. 

⁠— Ashley Onumonu, Mentee

Just days before registration closed, Ashley’s teacher shared the event information and Ashley decided to participate.

Ashley and Robin met last summer at Columbia’s Girls In STEM intensive, held at National Geographic’s offices in Washington, D.C., after Robin presented about integrating STEM, creativity, arts and communication skills, as she emphasizes in the Edge of Yesterday books.

Robin was running an internship program with D.C. Public Schools on the same day she visited Columbia Girls in STEM. Her interns were on Capitol Hill for a session focused on similar content, so Robin decided to take advantage of the technology to connect both groups of girls to learn from one another.

By the close of the program, Robin, moved by the warm reception she received, decided to hold an interest meeting for her own Edge of Yesterday-based workshop series, Girls Engage!, which encourages young women to pursue STEAM projects through small-group and one-on-one mentoring.

Initially, Robin planned for a group experience but realized that many of the girls faced school scheduling  conflicts. Fortunately, Ashley was available and so a more tailored program and mentorship between the two began.

Girls in STEM Edge of Yesterday

Continuing the Mentorship

Through five sessions over the past year, Robin and Ashley have worked to explore STEM and the arts and humanities through blended writing, creative, experiential and scientific approaches. Ashley also had the opportunity to publish her own work. The two met virtually to discuss new concepts and work through Ashley’s self-designed project.

Ashley chose to work with Robin to create a  series of blog posts for Edge of Yesterday focused on women in STEM. Through the project,  Ashley interviewed women in various STEM fields to gain an understanding of why there aren’t more women in STEM, how to change that, and what it means to be a woman in the field. 

Ashley’s a very motivated and serious young woman, quite disciplined about STEM in a way that I certainly wouldn’t have been at her age. It has really been wonderful to work with her.

⁠— Robin Stevens Payes, Mentor

Reflecting on her work with teens generally, Robin shared that she gives the girls “permission to not know, to experiment, and to experience new ideas and fields of interest because they might find that they like something completely different than they thought they would.” 

In the midst of her mentorship with Ashley, the alumni association of Robin’s alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, hosted a Women Leaders in STEM program in Washington, D.C. Robin took this as an opportunity to bring Ashley with her to meet women excelling in the field. The pair spent their day hearing from multiple panels of women doing remarkable things which combined STEM and STEAM in their work. 

Through this mentorship, I was exposed to many opportunities and learned lots of valuable lessons. I gained a mentor I can rely on and always come to for guidance. ⁠

— Ashley Onumonu, Mentee

As the only high school student in attendance, Ashely was able to take advantage of a networking period during which she could make connections with more women in STEM. 

Robin credits Ashley’s previous participation in Columbia’s Girls in STEM program for the confidence and ease she displayed as she spoke with the professionals at the event. Many of the women Ashley met there are also the women she is interviewing for her EOY project. 

Moving Forward in the World of STEM

Robin hopes to mentor other girls who want to maintain their STEM development throughout the year.

She also shared that she’s currently working on a new series featuring Émilie du Châtelet, an “eighteenth-century woman, philosopher, mathematician and physicist who translated and wrote the first scientific commentaries on Newton in French, laid the foundation for relativity two centuries before Einstein.” 

Mentorship is a mutually reinforcing learning experience. I get as much out of it from these young people as I hope they do from working with me.

⁠— Robin Stevens Payes, Mentor

Ashley and Robin continue to work together as Ashley applies for internships at organizations such as Johns Hopkins and NIH before she enters her senior year in high school.

Ashley is also looking forward to beginning her undergrad experience, where she plans to double major in Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering. She hopes to become an advocate for girls in STEM and has plans to create--and code--her own STEM blog. 

Launched by Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, the Columbia Girls in STEM Initiative addresses the persistent gender gap across STEM fields. 2020 marks the fifth year of the initiative, which takes place in four cities across the United States. Learn more about the Columbia Girls in STEM initiative here.