Program helps students with disabilities ‘Reach the Pinnacle’

Writer: Mark Cramer

For 15 years, New Mexico State University’s Reaching the Pinnacle program and its predecessors have been trailblazers in reaching out to students with disabilities, starting with the efforts of the late William McCarthy, the program’s original director and a longtime professor of civil engineering.

Reaching the Pinnacle, a National Science Foundation-funded program for students with disabilities, was originally called the Regional Alliance for Science, Engineering and Mathematics (RASEM) when McCarthy first received funding in 1995. The first of its kind, RASEM was a regional alliance in New Mexico and West Texas to provide the means, support and encouragement for students with disabilities to overcome the educational barriers they face in considering science, engineering, math and technology careers. The program has changed names – now it’s known as Reaching the Pinnacle – but the mission remains the same: to provide support for student mentors, encourage project partners and conduct an annual summer institute for pre-college students.

McCarthy passed away in July 2009, but Randy Larry has continued in his stead, keeping the program active and successful.

“Dr. McCarthy won funding for the program for three consecutive five-year periods, and in 15 years RASEM, and later Reaching the Pinnacle, has been encouraging and recruiting students with disabilities to go into the STEM fields,” Larry said. “It’s a statewide program, so we serve the entire state of New Mexico, pretty much all the two-year and four-year institutions.”

Larry anticipates submitting another proposal to the NSF by February 2011, with hopes of getting an additional five years of funding. Results from the past decade-and-a-half point to the money being well deserved.

“We have increased community awareness in how these students are involved with various STEM projects, and how our graduates have become a vital part of the workforce community,” Larry said. “The majority of our graduates obtain employment in high-tech areas. We have students right now placed at Raytheon, Boeing, the U.S. Forest Service, Hewlett-Packard, Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Lab; our graduates are seeking and obtaining high-tech jobs with large corporations.”

About 80 students per semester, from throughout Reaching the Pinnacle’s service area, are directly involved with the program. Typically, about seven students per semester graduate. The spring 2010 semester saw a record-high 11 graduates.

The Reaching the Pinnacle program consists of three major components: mentorship, partnership and outreach to middle- and high-school students via a summer institute.

The mentorship program provides financial assistance to potentially eligible students. Program mentors engage high school teachers and college professors and serve as role models for other high school and college students. Many are Pinnacle graduates or currently in college thanks to assistance from the Pinnacle program, and they stand as examples that students with disabilities are capable of obtaining a college degree and going into STEM careers.

“If students with disabilities are not familiar with STEM and they’re not sure what they want to do, our mentors encourage them,” Larry said.

Mentors also receive financial assistance – stipends awarded in amounts tied to the student’s GPA.

“If they have between a 3.0 to 4.0 they get $500 per semester,” Larry explained. “If their GPA is between 2.0 to 2.99, they get $300. They can use that for any educational expenses: transportation, books, tuition, gas money.”

The second component, partner projects, helps Reaching the Pinnacle throw a net over the fifth-largest state in the union, square-mileage wise – and even West Texas. The program is engaged with 27 two- and four-year institutions and work with the majority of school districts in the state and El Paso as well. Partner institutions are encouraged to submit proposals to Pinnacle staff for $7,000 grants, which they can use to increase awareness with the students, parents and administrators in their school community.

The summer institute, known as RASSI (Regional Alliance Summer Science Institute), is Reaching the Pinnacle’s third major component. RASSI camps are conducted in the summer and offer high-school students an opportunity to explore STEM through hands-on, engaging activities. RASSI camps are held each year in Northern and Southern New Mexico and far-West Texas. Themes vary annually and reflect current areas of interest in STEM education and research, including science field work, mathematics applied to biology, hot-air balloon physics, satellite design, robot building and programming, and design and prototyping of canoes, bridges and rockets.

“A majority of our students, when they’re finished with school, call and let us know that without the financial assistance they got from Reaching the Pinnacle, they wouldn’t have been so successful; they wouldn’t have completed their coursework,” Larry said. “And it’s more than that; we let them know about other supplemental programs that are available on their campuses, like accessibility offices, math and tutoring labs, career centers.

“Research has shown that 80 percent of students with disabilities do not register with the accessibility office, because high school students first entering colleges or universities don’t know to seek those programs out, because they’re used to being catered to in middle and high school.”

Larry and his staff work to get the word out about Reaching the Pinnacle. In addition to regularly engaging mentors across the service area, the program sponsors information and recruitment booths at college and job fairs, where potential students may even apply for admission into the program.

“They need to be aware that these opportunities are available to them, that programs do exist on these campuses,” Larry said. “They need to be aware that we want them to be successful. The ultimate goal for us is to get them through school and for them to either obtain employment or go back to school to get a master’s or a Ph.D.”

Reaching the Pinnacle has increased outreach through social media as well, through a private Facebook page (accessible by contacting the RPT office) and its own website,

“If students need assistive technology, or if they need to know if there are scholarships available for those with a particular disability, these online tools can help them,” Larry said. “We have information on internships and the criteria for applying for internships, as well as information on employment opportunities.

“When we’re at the high schools, we just want to let those students with disabilities aware that these types of program are available for them. They’re not alone; there’s a cluster of students out there that have found success through our program and others like it.”

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