State's science, tech students see new opportunity at home

The state, Microsoft and Boeing are working together to prepare young people for jobs in the growing STEM fields. But it's too early to say how big a difference a public-private effort will make.
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After his liver transplant in 2010, University of Washington sophomore Ameen Tabatabai is now back in school, with a $5,000 scholarship.

The state, Microsoft and Boeing are working together to prepare young people for jobs in the growing STEM fields. But it's too early to say how big a difference a public-private effort will make.

Redmond-native Ameen Tabatabai was set to go to the University of Washington in 2010. Despite the doctor’s diagnosis of his chronic and progressive liver disease when he was only 10 years old, Tabatabai pushed through middle school and high school with flying colors. But shortly after his enrollment, his condition worsened and Tabatabai had to postpone his studies.

On Dec. 20, 2010, Tabatabai went into a surgery for liver transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center.

Having faced the reality of medical bills, the cost of college tuition became even more of a concern. But when he came back to school in fall 2011, the UW sophomore found out from the financial aid office about the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. He took his chances, applied and received a scholarship.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship is the fruit of a public-private partnership created back in 2011 by the Washington State Legislature to address rising tuition at Washington colleges and universities. The program specifically focuses on Washington state residents looking to pursue a major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as health. So far, the WSOS board is supporting a total of 3,000 STEM and health students; more than 750 scholarships were awarded across the state this year alone. The scholarship students attend dozens of public and private universities and community colleges in the state.

Earlier in March, a study by the Washington Roundtable and the Boston Consulting Group reported that there are 25,000 jobs unfilled in Washington – a large portion of which are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics or health care sectors.

“We need all the help we can get,” said Brad Smith, general counsel and an executive vice president, at Microsoft, a member of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarships board of directors.

The creation of the scholarship program gave local corporations a new way to be involved in the efforts to close the “skills gap” Funds for the scholarship largely came from Boeing and Microsoft ,with $50 million combined, and the state contributed the initial $5 million fund.

This model of public-private partnership is the first of its kind in the nation, according to state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

According to Smith, another state that comes close to comparison is Georgia, but what Georgia offers are state scholarships. Therefore, scholarships are influenced heavily on the state’s economy. To ensure the continuity of the program, the WSOS board plans to create an endowment that will withstand any economic weather.

Whether or not the program is making a dent on the “skills gap” is still unclear; the data available is mostly anecdotal, Smith said. “What we know right now is that scholarships make a difference in students’ lives,” said Smith.

That much is clear when students took the opportunity to share their opinions of the program to the WSOS board and several lawmakers in attendance at a recent University of Washington event.

University of Washington senior Sobia Sheikh, a mathematics major, used to work two jobs — one for experience, the other to help pay tuition and house utilities. She was feeling burnt out, but the scholarship enabled her to quit one of her jobs and focus on excelling in her studies.

Sheikh, who’s also a part of University of Washington’s Dream Project reaching out to help low-income students apply for college, suggested that the Washington State Opportunities Scholarship board should increase the awareness in specific schools like Cleveland High School. High school students in lower-income neighborhoods are often conflicted about the thought of higher education because of their financial circumstances.

Other students simply expressed gratitude, but many, like Sheikh, offered feedback from the capacity constraints of STEM programs to internship opportunities.

In responding to the students’ feedbacks and the program, Tom noted that the nature of the public-private partnership enables the program to act as a supplement to what the state is working on.

Smith said, “Take internships, for example, we can’t do that as a state alone, but capacity constraints in programs are something that we are working on. We do our part. You do your part.”

Addressing the “skills gap” in Washington, according to the Washington Roundtable report, could significantly cut the state’s unemployment as well as raising state and local tax revenues by more than $1 billion annually within five years. In the long run, the WSOS board hopes that the scholarships encourage the growth of home-bred STEM employees who will later continue to work in-state.

Staying local is definitely a strict principle for Ameen Tabatabai, who plans to continue to graduate school at University of Washington after his bachelor’s degree.

“No relocation [for me] – I’m all about Washington state,” said Tabatabai. “I want to give back to the state and help improve Washington state as a tech center.”


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