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A new scholarship program invests in students who bring a wider range of experiences and perspectives to engineering.

Merci Schneider is a first-year biomedical engineering student who plans to use her childhood experience with severe scoliosis to fuel her interest in devising healthcare solutions.

She’s gotten an early taste of that work through the college’s first-year interdisciplinary design practicum, 3D printing prototypes of a device to help a local community member with Dupuytren’s disease, a condition that impairs hand function.

“I love what we’re doing,” says Schneider.

It’s an experience she wouldn’t be getting without the Strategic Targeted Achievement Recognition (STAR) Scholarship, which made it possible for her to come to UW-Madison from her home city of Denver.

“Honestly, it was the reason I could come to this school,” she says. “I just felt so honored to get it, but also I wanted to go to a school that really wanted me. I felt like they valued me and saw me for my worth.”

And that’s precisely the point behind the STAR Scholarship Program: investing in talented students from across the country who will bring a diverse range of identities, perspectives and lived experiences to the field of engineering. The program, which doubles donors’ impact via matching funds from The Grainger Foundation, annually supports around 50 students from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, including a range of racial and gender identities, first-generation college students and those from rural areas.

While STAR Scholars take classes, join student organizations and do plenty more alongside the rest of their college peers, they also form their own networks within the program. They gather for special study nights, for example, at the college’s Undergraduate Learning Center, as well as in smaller cohorts based on housing assignments and shared coursework. Scholars can also access free one-on-one tutoring and holistic guidance from program advisor Keeley Meier on top of regular academic advising services.

The idea is to instill a strong sense of both community and support, particularly as students navigate the transition to college.

Sophomore Alexis Garbisch meets with Meier every other week. She says those sessions have helped her with both immediate logistical challenges, like fitting volunteer work with the campus Amnesty International student org into her schedule, and big-picture questions—namely, connecting her chemical engineering major to her long-term interest in pursuing research into the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders.

“My path in chemical engineering, and in engineering, is a little bit less conventional,” says Garbisch, who’s from Grafton, Wisconsin. “Keeley’s been a huge help in allowing me to keep my passion and motivation.”

Each semester, the college also offers STAR Scholars several chances to visit local companies, such as Madison-based construction firm Findorff, where in fall 2022 president and CEO Jim Yehle led the students on a tour before they visited a job site and talked with working engineers. Students also get an early sampling of the resources at the college’s makerspace through special programming, plus workshops to support accessing research and professional opportunities.

“I see these students wanting to tackle those big problems that our country and world are facing,” says Meier. “These are people who are going to have those innovative thoughts and ideas that make change in ways that we don’t know yet is possible.”

Featured photo caption: First-year biomedical engineering student Merci Schneider plans to use her childhood experience with severe scoliosis to fuel her interest in devising healthcare solutions. Submitted photo.