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MOUNT VERNON — While attending Skagit Valley College with hopes of becoming a doctor, Iriz Quiroz Diaz has been working two jobs while still keeping up on her studies.

It’s a lot to juggle, especially as the sophomore starts to take harder classes.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the 23-year-old Quiroz Diaz is among the first group of students to receive financial help through the new Cardinal STEM Scholars Program, allowing her to quit one of her jobs.

“It means a lot to me,” she said. “This is giving me the freedom so I don’t have to be working all the time.”

The $648,000 grant that funds the program will help students, especially those who are generally underrepresented, break into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Students can receive up to $5,700 per year.

“The grant opens up the doors to students who traditionally do not participate in STEM programs,” Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan said.

Of the first 11 students to receive scholarships, about 50% are Latino and 60% are women, Keegan said.

As Cardinal STEM Scholars, the students will advance in their majors in a way that more resembles a fellowship, said Gabriel Mast, executive dean for instruction.

That means they will have more mentorship and peer support opportunities, as well as an expectation for out-of-classroom experiences and research — things often required for advancement in their fields.

“The money comes with the expectation that you’re in this program in a very active way,” Mast said. “It’s really meant to set them up for success.”

For students such as Quiroz Diaz, that means more time on campus and more time volunteering.

Over the next five years, the college expects to award STEM scholarships to 68 students.

“It is inherent in our mission that we should open our minds and our hearts to all,” Keegan said. “This is just one more tool for us to do that.”

As part of the grant, the college will use this first group of students to study best practices to get women and minorities into STEM fields, Mast said.

In addition to the scholarship, the college is also celebrating a new pre-engineering transfer degree that will allow students to easily move into four-year programs, Keegan said.

“It will give students a direct and comprehensive pathway,” Keegan said.

Fayez Hjouj, who spent several years teaching engineering at a community college in Portland, has been hired to lead the development of the new program.

“Our target is to help our community and to improve our community,” Hjouj said.

In its first year, Hjouj will teach some engineering classes, but will also work with the community and the college to develop the pre-engineering program, including working with local high schools to recruit students.

“Engineering is the base — the main factor — for civilization,” he said. “Every other career depends on us as engineers.”

He said community colleges are great places for students to get into the field, especially for those who want to remain in the Skagit Valley.

“It’s a friendly environment,” he said.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141,, Twitter: @Kera_SVH,

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