Left to Right: Eli Kennedy (SMASH), Dr. Eric Whitaker (CPASS Foundation), Freada Kapor Klein (SMASH/Kapor Capital), Mitch Kapor (Kapor Capital), Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, Meera Komarrauju (SIU Carbondale), Senator Kimberly Lightford, Ashleigh Richelle (SMASH), Peter Kilpatrick (Illinois Tech), and Dr. Stephen Martin (CPASS Foundation).

CARBONDALE — Last Thursday, Southern Illinois University Carbondale leaders stood alongside a Californian tech mogul and Illinois’ new lieutenant governor, Juliana Stratton, in downtown Chicago to announce a program that will change the lives of kids in Southern Illinois.

The university has been invited to co-host a nationally-recognized summer program for high-achieving high schoolers who are interested in science and technology, but come from backgrounds where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathmatics) opportunities are scarce.

Minority students. Kids from low-income families. Kids whose parents never went to college.

All are invited to apply.

Beginning this summer, the Kapor Center, funded by tech mogul Mitchell Kapor, will accept 35 ninth graders from Chicago and 35 from Southern Illinois for the first year of the Illinois SMASH Academy.

They’ll attend a 5-week, all-expenses-paid STEM summer camp each year for three years, until they graduate high school, studying math, biology, chemistry and engineering, plus college-readiness skills like SAT and ACT test prep.

This summer, the 70 Illinois students will spend their five weeks on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, with a brief weekend visit to explore SIUC.

And while plans for Summer 2020 are not yet official, Meera Komarraju, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at SIUC, hopes it will be SIUC’s turn to play host, housing the students on campus and educating them at SIU Carbondale’s facilities.

“That was very important to us,” Komarraju said. “Give us that chance to connect with these students.”

Besides the summer activities, Southern Illinois-based students will receive mentorship year-round from SIUC.

“We’ll be engaging them in STEM-related activities,” Komarraju said, visiting campus monthly for hands-on experiments, lectures and activities. “It’s about sustaining that passion of the children in the interest they have.”


Meera Komarraju, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at SIU, explains the university's role in the SMASH Illinois STEM education program, a partnership with SIUC, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Creating Pathways and Access for Student Success (CPASS) Foundation.

Each of the first three years, the program will grow as it welcomes a new class of students. By Year 3 of SMASH Illinois, there will be 210 participants: 70 rising sophomores, 70 juniors and 70 seniors.

The hope, Komarraju said, is that the Kapor Center will sustain the program for many years to come, just as it has in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Across the country, graduates of the program go on to big things.

Every SMASH student graduates high school, according to Kapor Center data, and 91 percent earn a college degree within five years, compared to the national rate of 60 percent of college enrollees.

SIUC officials are expecting similar success, now that the program has come to Illinois

“These are future leaders. Even one kid, if they are able to pursue their dreams, for their family and the part of society they live in, this can have a big ripple effect,” Komarraju said.

The Kapor Center contacted SIUC last year through Linda Baker, a professor at SIUC’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

They were impressed with the university’s track record in working with bright but underprivileged kids in Southern Illinois and the Metro East, in towns like Cahokia and East St. Louis, Baker said.

“They knew we had strong relationships there,” Baker said, with mentorship organizations including service-oriented fraternities, local Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Top Ladies of Distinction, an education and humanitarian non-profit led by African-American women.

For years, Baker has taken talented Southern Illinois high schoolers to Springfield for the Simon Institute’s Youth Government Day, introducing them to legislators, judges, lobbyists and other government leaders.

Kapor Center leadership took that as one example of SIUC’s connections to the Southern Illinois talent it hopes to target.

“They didn’t want to come to Illinois and just work with Chicago kids,” Baker said. “They are very interested in serving children from rural areas.”

This is the first time a SMASH Academy has been co-hosted by two schools, Komarraju said. Some details of that cooperation are still being worked out between IIT and the Carbondale campus, but SIUC officials are optimistic about the possibilities.

“Our enthusiasm, commitment and student focus, that’s what they told us, that convinced them to give this a try,” Komarraju said. “This is a chance to let people know what we are capable of.”

Generally, funding a SMASH Academy is a collaborative effort between the Kapor Center and host universities.

Both SIUC and IIT are working to find interested donors, Komarraju said, and the Carbondale Campus has already secured some support from the SIU Foundation, its fundraising arm.

But some weight was lifted off the universities’ shoulders at Thursday’s press conference, Komarraju said, when Lt. Gov. Stratton and Illinois Sen. Kimberly Lightford made a surprise announcement that the state would chip in too.

“We see so many jobs and opportunities opening up, but unfortunately we’re not seeing those opportunities open up at the same rate for people from communities of color,” Stratton told the Sun-Times, on Thursday. “We can expose them to the STEM field, with mentoring, workshops and exposure to institutions of higher education, and put them on a path toward success.”

Applications to SMASH are now open, and SIU Carbondale is spreading the word to community organizations and area high schools, Baker said.

Interested students and educators can get more information at www.smash.org/programs/smash-academy/.

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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