GeoFORCE grads head to college

Twenty-three young scholars entered into the university this fall as some of the first graduates of the GeoFORCE Texas program, one of the nation's largest geosciences pipelines for high school students

The GeoFORCE program takes high school honor students from predominantly minority regions of southwest Texas and the Houston area on geological field trips across the country to educate and excite them about science. Each summer for four years, students travel to different sites - some as close as Austin, Uvalde and Port Aransas, and some as far away as Florida, Washington, D.C., and Oregon.

"Up until that point, I didn't know what I wanted to do," said Katie Bales, a GeoFORCE graduate from Sabinal, Texas (population 1,600) and incoming freshman in geosystems engineering and hydrogeology. "And that summer I knew that I was going to be in geology for the rest of my life."

Program influences futures

The program, run by the Jackson School of Geosciences, is designed to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing degrees in math and science, especially the earth sciences.

The first cohort of 80 students came from southwest Texas, and while not every graduate went on to study geosciences, it did influence their views on higher education 90 percent were accepted into junior colleges, colleges and universities, with 63 percent majoring in science, engineering or math. This year, five of the 23 GeoFORCE students at The University of Texas at Austin are pursuing majors in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

Creating excitement at UT

Half of the first cohort of GeoFORCE students began their odyssey in the summer of 2005 with a visit to the Austin campus. For most of the students, it was their first extended time on a university campus. They stayed for several days in Jester dorm and participated in a series of introductory geology seminars with professor Leon Long.

"That was the first time I'd been to UT and Austin," said Elyana Barrera, a GeoFORCE graduate from Del Rio, Texas (population 37,000) and incoming freshman in geosystems engineering and hydrogeology. "I was overwhelmed. It's a big campus, but I liked it a lot. (Coming for the visit) had a big influence on me being here right now.

Navigating first-generation students

Mike Loudin, manager of ExxonMobil's Global Geoscience Recruiting and Early Career Program and supporter of GeoFORCE, said one of the great strengths of the program is how it helps students navigate the process of getting into college. Many of the students don't have family members who have gone to college.

"You have to work with the families and students to demystify the whole process," Loudin said. "If you don't have any role models and nobody in the family has ever done it before, there's no one to tell you how to do it or what not to do."

GeoFORCE staff members and volunteers help students apply for university admissions and financial aid, and students are even taught strategies for taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Representatives from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, UT Outreach and the U.S. Geological Survey also talk with students.

"We go to these little high schools and it's like everyone is there to just pass a class and get out," said Bales. "And on these trips, we were with teachers and sponsors who cared, who wanted us to succeed in life. That's what pushed us the most. There was finally someone in our lives besides our parents who wanted us to get a good education and have the opportunities that were out there."

Read more about GeoFORCE students.

Watch GeoFORCE students in action.

View a slideshow of the various places GeoFORCE students have traveled.