EMS students say Millennium Scholars Program already opening doors

First-year students Brian Swab, mining engineering, and Ana Isabel De La Fuente Duran, materials science, are the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' first Millennium Scholars — a program that aims to fast-track exceptional students into research in STEM fields. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s early and the latest cohort of Millennium Scholars are already on their feet, walking single file to a 6:45 a.m. breakfast, readying for a long day of learning that’ll conclude some 16 hours later.

Today, like every day in this summer Bridge Program — a six-week summer boot camp that preps students for the four-year Millennium Scholars Program — there is rigorous classwork, seminars, workshops and math recitation awaiting 29 of Penn State’s new bright minds. This boot camp isn’t designed to produce soldiers, although it mirrors the same practices of using fellowship to solve problems. It’s designed to produce the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) scientists.

The program, which began at Penn State in 2013, this year includes a pair of students from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. At the summer Bridge Program, students are immediately immersed in a rich academic and research environment. Gone are the distractions. No cell phones, laptops or iPods. Instead, attention is turned to beginning academic careers while making ties with the University’s leading researchers.

The scholars are also there to develop ties among their peers. A chief tenet of the program is that teamwork and camaraderie — not competition — leads to the next generation of scientific discoveries. From there, students jump into a college curriculum aimed at producing doctoral students while improving diversity in STEM fields. The program guides students through their bachelor’s degree, helping them optimize every opportunity to make them highly competitive as graduate applicants and set them up for long-term success in doctoral study.   

“The students in Millennium Scholars are the best and brightest underrepresented students who dream of pursuing a Ph.D.,” said Victoria Sanchez, associate dean for educational equity. “STEM fields are about making new knowledge, pushing the boundary of what we know and how we know it. Most gets applied in ways that make our lives and societies better. If we don’t have the brainpower of a significant portion of our population, we could be missing out. What if the next greatest discovery — for medicine, space travel, climate change — is in the brain of a person who belongs to a group that has historically had great challenges in accessing a college education?

Penn State’s program — the third of its kind in the nation — is modeled after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) with its particular focus on the importance of the Bridge Program.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program, recognized by the National Science Foundation and The New York Times as a national model, has more than 300 students enrolled and more than 1,000 graduates — nearly 90 percent of whom have gone on to attend graduate school.

Of those UMBC graduates, about 70 percent are underrepresented minorities, where one in four, nationally, attain a degree.

“Earning a degree in the STEM field is rigorous yet rewarding, and these students already are learning the challenges ahead in their quest to become the next generation of researchers,” said William Easterling, dean of the College of EMS, adding that the program elevates students to succeed in a field where just half of the nation’s students graduate.

The program is meant, in part, to foster a sense of family. That’s important to Ana Isabel De La Fuente Duran and Brian Swab, the college’s first Millennium Scholars. Both have rich ties to the University.

Millennium Scholar Ana Isabel De La Fuente Duran, a first year student majoring in Materials Science (MatSE), is helping Isolina Preciado, a MatSE graduate student, research the synthesis and characterization of a 2-D semiconductor material with potential uses in photovoltaic devices in the lab of Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE). Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Meet Ana De La Fuente Duran

De La Fuente Duran, whose two brothers are both Penn State students, said she followed their advice when choosing a college. She said their experiences and praise moved the University to the top of her list. Now she’s hoping the Millennium Scholars Program will put her at the top of the list of materials sciences and engineering researchers.

Already, she’s seeing the benefits. The first-year student is working with Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering (MatSE), and Isolina Preciado, a MatSE graduate student, on the synthesis and characterization of a 2-D semiconductor material with potential uses in photovoltaic devices.

She made a lot of connections before the semester, which helped her earn a spot in Robinson’s lab.

“I don’t think I would have reached out to get in a lab at all if the Millennium Scholars Program hadn’t given me the idea or the means to do it,” she said.

The program also gives her the tools to succeed, she said. During the Bridge Program, her cohort was sleep-deprived and tested but also learned some valuable lessons. There, mentors told the students to approach every day with effort.

“One of the biggest things the program has done for me in terms of influencing me academically is teach me how to get where you want to be,” said De La Fuente Duran. “I’ve always pictured excellence. I want to achieve excellence. I want to be excellent in what I pursue. And they emphasized what it really means to be excellent.” They talked about time, effort, and what it takes to achieve greatness, she said.

High school came easy for her. Now, surrounded by those successful in STEM research, she sees the hard work it takes. She’s improved her study habits and time-management skills, but can still sneak in an ice-skating trip to the Pegula Ice Arena or spend a day with her parents, visiting from Pittsburgh.

De La Fuente Duran, who immigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, about a decade ago, hopes to break ground in a field that struggles to find a diverse workforce. She said efforts from people like her are already beginning to pay off in the industry.

“I think it’s changing. I see a lot more women and girls interested in STEM fields. It’s really encouraging,” she said. “I know what I want to do, and I’m trying to not let anything stop me from doing it.”

Millennium Scholar Brian Swab, a first-year mining engineering student, recently attending MINExpo in Las Vegas. The world's largest mining industry event was a chance for Swab to make early industry connections.  Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Meet Brian Swab

Swab said, like his dad, brother and many members of his extended family, Penn State was his first choice. He had many offers from many schools but in the end, the Millennium Scholars Program — and its benefits and scholarships — was too good to pass up.

He is following in the footsteps of his dad, Jeffrey Swab, Ceramic Science and Engineering ’83, and brother, John “Jack” Swab, a senior double majoring in Geography and History and a Schreyer Honors College Scholar.

Swab said his brother had a hand in helping him select his major, Mining Engineering, which, he says, helps him meld his two loves: taking an analytical approach to problem-solving and getting to work with his hands.

The Bridge Program, Swab said, was “brutal,” but effective.

“It throws you into tough situations,” he said. “You adapt, and you have to learn how to be flexible, and you just survive, and by surviving you become the best student you can be.”

He, quite literally, shoots for the moon with his ambitions. He hopes to one day start a company that mines the moon for Helium-3, an isotope used in nuclear fusion and neutron detection that’s rare on Earth yet plentiful in space. Until then, he’s happy to get his feet firmly planted in the terrestrial industry, and he’s hoping the connections he’s making get him there.

Swab said the biggest perk of the program has yet to come.

“The cohorts ahead of us have had amazing internships, and those companies will definitely remember that. It will be easier to get into a company where a Millennium Scholar has been because they’ll know the caliber of the candidate. They’ll know the work ethic of the Millennium Scholars,” he said.

He was one of two freshmen selected to attend MINExpo International, the world’s largest mining trade show. He surveyed the latest mining technologies but also had some time for sightseeing in Las Vegas.

“I was able to see all the equipment before I’ve even taken a class on mining engineering and see the different techniques to mining hands-on,” said Swab. There, he met a few top players in the industry, brought home some business cards and put his resume in circulation, hoping to lay the groundwork for internships, co-ops and research opportunities.

Family ties

De La Fuente Duran and Swab praised the connections they’re making within the program.

“Summer Bridge made my cohort a family. We now have become a family with the cohort before us because we live with them and interact with them on an everyday basis,” said Swab.

Added De La Fuente Duran, “I have a friend here who’s constantly telling me ‘you’re really lucky to be living in the same place with people you already know, all these people who want to succeed as much as you do.’ And I think it has been great. It’s great to turn to all these people and say ‘hey, do you know how to do this’ or ‘hey, I can help you with that’ without hesitation.”

The program began at Penn State in Eberly College of Science and the College of Engineering and this year expanded to add the colleges of EMS, Information Sciences and Technology and Agricultural Sciences. For more information, visit the Penn State Millennium Scholars Program website at

Last Updated November 17, 2016