David B. Thorud Leadership Award
Sonya G. Cunningham

Sonya G. Cunningham

Director of the STARS Program

Nominated by Eve Riskin, Associate Dean of Diversity & Access, College of Engineering

Awarded 2018

I am delighted to recommend Sonya Cunningham for the University of Washington’s David B. Thorud Award for Leadership for Staff. Sonya is Director of the Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS) in Engineering program. STARS supports diverse students from Washingtonto achieve their dreams of becoming engineers.

In December 2012, after watching diverse students struggle to succeed in Engineering prerequisite courses, my colleagues and I submitted a National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal for STARS. Based on asuccessful program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, STARS provides a “redshirt” year of extra preparation for engineering to students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students, and underrepresented minorities. To address inequities in Washington high schools, we recruit from high schools with high populations of students on free and reduced-price lunch. We were happy to receive the grant in May 2013 and even happier to hire Sonya in
July of that year.

Sonya had a wealth of experience working with disadvantaged college students, in part because she was one herself, and brought a great vision for STARS. She sets very high expectations of the STARS students, despite their lack of preparation to compete in UW prerequisite courses like calculus, chemistry, and physics. She understands that students also need emotional and social support to do their best work, nor just academic and financial support. She interviews all STARS applicants to assess their commitment to engineering and their resiliency. She also put in place a transition week before classes start to build community among the students, starting with the second STARS cohort.

Because of Sonya’s leadership, STARS outcomes have been nothing short of spectacular. To date, 79% (94 out of 119) of the students in the four STARS cohorts remain enrolled in Engineering or Computer Science, and three students graduated in four years. Nationally, engineering retention numbers (for all students, including majority and students from privileged backgrounds) hover around 50%, so STARS’ 79% retention rate is phenomenal. Survey data show that STARS students are much more familiar with UW support resources than students who are not in STARS. STARS students are much more diverse than the overall UW Engineering student body; over the five cohorts, nearly 50% are underrepresented minorities; 40% are women; 70% are first-generation college students; and 84% hold Pell Grants. Notably student retention at the end of the first year at UW went up from 70% for the first cohort to 91% for the second cohort, because Sonya interviewed every single applicant, selected the students admitted to STARS, and implemented the transition week.

Besides these excellent retention outcomes, the STARS students significantly outperform the overall pre-engineering student body in their engineering prerequisites! This is not something I even imagined but thanks to Sonya’s leadership and high expectations, the students are excelling. By the end of their first year at UW, their average cumulative GPA is 0.3 higher than the general pre-engineering population. More impressively, their mean Math 124 grade is 0.64 higher; their mean Math 125 grade is 0.53 higher; their mean Chemistry 142 grade is 0.66 higher; and their mean Chemistry 152 grade is 0.36 higher. Each quarter that first-year STARS students take enough graded credits, 10-11 of them (out of 30) make the Dean’s List. Dean Michael Bragg writes, “STARS is changing the face of the UW College of Engineering. It is also changing people’s expectations of underserved students because STARS students are doing so well.”

Part of the students’ success is because Sonya has tough conversations with them about their academic progress and choices. These conversations have been critical to helping some students turn their academic performance around. As one example, one student received a rather unfortunate 2.2 average GPA his first quarter at UW. After a frank talk with Sonya, he made the Dean’s List the following quarter!

Dr. Lynne Spencer teaches Chemistry to STARS students. She writes, “Sonya is the sole reason that the STARS program has succeeded and continues to flourish. Her guidance and forethought have provided students with a superior level of holistic academic and career development support. Sonya constantly strives to improve further the skills of her staff as well as her own.” Adds Dr. Sheldon Levias, who leads the Engineering Academic Center, “Sonya has exemplified leadership during my time with her at the UW. Sonya is a calm presence during stressful, critical situations. She encourages achievement from students who do not yet have the confidence to believe what they are capable of. As one example, Sonya connected me with a student who turned out to be a fantastic office assistant for the summer. It was his first extensive job and Sonya put him in the position to be successful in his role with me so that he could gain confidence for pursuing other opportunities.”

Sonya has been active in helping raise funds for STARS and with the additional funding, STARS is now a full two-year program. In 2016, we received over $3M in new funding from the NSF and the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) to expand STARS and the current first-year cohort has 51 students. Writes Theresa Britschgi of WSOS, “Our team is grateful for the collaboration of the UW STARS program under the leadership of Director Sonya Cunningham. With her empathetic and strategic support, STARS students are able to unlock their abundant drive, curiosity, and commitment. She is ensuring that our Scholars receive the skill-building and community support they need for success.” Adds STARS adviser Kyla Wright, “Sonya has an infallible commitment to STARS. The program has increased in size and scope under her direction. Her work ethic and connection to students have shaped the STARS Program into what it is today.”

Dr. Fiona Goodchild was Director of the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is active on the STARS external advisory board. She writes, “When I visited one of the STARS classes to talk about the value of undergraduate research, I met a group of students who were both dedicated and engaged. The students come from a wide range of families and high schools and it was clear to me that Sonya took the time to understand the students’ backgrounds. She monitors the students’ progress and knows which students need extra guidance or extra individual support. She builds on her remarkable understanding of the obstacles that these students may face to lead the program so effectively.”

Sonya is very modest but her connection with her students and families is hard to miss. Many STARS parents are understandably worried that their students are at such a large university. Sonya strikes an important balance of reassuring the parents and conveying the importance of healthy separation in fostering responsibility and autonomy in their students. From time to time, she is found with boxes of chocolates in her office, gifted to her by grateful parents. Besides chocolates, I have seen numerous heartfelt thank-you notes from students and parents that speak volumes about her impact on them. One mother wrote, “With your help, I have noticed changes in my son: more mature, more organized, better managing time, taking financial responsibilities… I know without your help and sound advice he would not be the same person.”

Sonya’s values are the values of the STARS program: have a strong work ethic, be responsible, set and meet (or exceed) high expectations, provide access, engage in hard conversations, be fully committed, tailor support, and motivate others. These same words appear in various quotations in this nomination statement and that is a direct reflection of Sonya’s undeniable impact and imprint on STARS. It is a testament to Sonya’s leadership that everyone who has been touched by STARS sees her vision and is eager to turn that vision into reality.

In summary, I am absolutely thrilled that Sonya leads the STARS program. She is having a huge impact on her students and on diversity in the UW College of Engineering. Without Sonya’s leadership, STARS would not be nearly as successful or impactful. I cannot think of someone more deserving of the Thorud Award for Staff than Sonya Cunningham. She exemplifies leadership and is a true asset to the UW.

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