Student in laboratory at Wright State University (courtesy of Ohio Department of Higher Education)
Ohio Life

How Choose Ohio First Supports College Students Earning STEM Degrees

The Choose Ohio First program awards scholarships to students studying a STEM-related field. It also helps universities and colleges across the state aid in their success.

Creating a reflective-panel solar oven for cooking in Africa. Figuring out how to use a common waste product and binder as a sustainable way to help antibiotics stick and absorb. These were just a couple of the science projects that Youngstown State University graduate Cameron Watkins worked on as a Choose Ohio First scholar.

It was a journey he never imagined as a student at Mineral Ridge High School in Weathersfield Township, located near the Mahoning County city of Niles. One day in science class, a Choose Ohio First program coordinator gave a presentation about STEM careers and the scholarships available to Ohio students studying qualifying fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Lt. Governor Jon Husted launched Choose Ohio First in 2007, when he was Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. The program’s goal is multifaceted. It is designed to strengthen the state’s competitiveness in STEM when it comes to both workers and education. Colleges and universities apply for Choose Ohio First scholarship funds from the state of Ohio. Once awarded, colleges and universities select scholarship winners and support those students in their selected STEM program by offering tutoring, career exploration, workforce connections, a peer network and other supports that help students succeed.

Students entering a qualifying program receive a recurring grant until graduation, and all levels of degrees are included, be it a certificate, an associate or bachelor’s degree, or graduate study.

“What I aspired for Choose Ohio First to be is even more important today, because our economy in Ohio is more STEM dependent than it was then,” Husted says. “And the good news about this program is that it’s a win-win, because students attain skills that are in demand and lead to higher pay and businesses get the talent they need to be successful, and all of Ohio prospers as a result.”

Choose Ohio First scholars maintain high graduation rates, and the program has successfully recruited and graduated underrepresented students who are now working in high-paying, rewarding and in-demand STEM fields.
      Students working on computer console (photo courtesy of Hocking College)

Hocking College Cybersecurity and Network System students working in a classroom. (photo courtesy of Hocking College)

Since the program’s inception, more than 22,500 students have received Choose Ohio First scholarships, and of those who entered the program in 2019, 78 percent are working in Ohio or enrolled in additional education.

“We are seeing that students do stay, they are completing, and they are successful in STEM careers,” says Emily Turner, Director of Choose Ohio First.

The scholarship maximum is $8,632 per academic year. In 2022, the average was $2,226 for a two-year institution and  $4,324 for a four-year school. A large portion of scholars leverage other financial aid and take advantage of programs like College Credit Plus to earn college credits in high school.

“If you combine those [College Credit Plus] credits with a scholarship from Choose Ohio First, it can dramatically reduce the cost of degrees and certificates,” Turner says.

Watkins is one of thousands who might not have envisioned a dynamic STEM career with no student loan debt. Layering Choose Ohio First with other financial aid, he was able to pay for his entire education at Youngstown State University.

“This is an excellent [program] to get where you want to be in your future,” Watkins says. “It can help you succeed in your college career with the tutoring outlet, and it’s an excellent financial opportunity.”

STEM State of Mind

STEM-related industries are at the center of Ohio and the country’s economic security, and an influx of STEM investment in the state is driving demand for skilled workers. Husted runs through a list of that investment, including the $20 billion Intel semiconductor production facility being built in New Albany that will make computer chips.

“There is a huge demand for high-tech STEM engineers and manufacturing talent,” Husted says.

The annual average wage for about 3,000 jobs, including engineers, technicians and administrators, is $135,000. Plus, the chip plant will grow demand for STEM talent within nearly 170 existing Ohio businesses that are a part of Intel’s supply chain.

“We have seen growth in life sciences, gene and cell therapy and pharmaceuticals, creating more demand for STEM talent — and Ohio has developed a STEM strategy for economic development around three innovation districts in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus,” Husted says. “We hope to produce 40,000 more STEM graduates than were previously expected.” 

The Choose Ohio First program is a vehicle for advancing students’ interest and passion for STEM careers, while making education accessible and more affordable. Although the fields of computer science and engineering dominate much of the talk surrounding STEM, there is a steadily growing list of fields that fall under the umbrella. The Choose Ohio First program encompasses 995 eligible majors, including fields like teaching, nursing and landscape architecture. The list goes on and on.

Beyond lucrative STEM careers, there are other benefits to study in such fields. The learning model promotes problem solving, practical application and a readiness to succeed in the modern workforce.

“It helps students to be collaborative, work with others, learn from failures, and that’s what every employer wants and every career needs,” Turner says.

The message is that careers in the STEM fields are for everyone, no matter your economic level or background, and the Choose Ohio First program is the conduit for delivering them.

“It helps students enter fields of study that many might not have imagined for themselves,” says Dr. Fedearia Nicholson-Sweval, Vice Provost for Student Pathways and Dean of the Williams Honors College at the University of Akron. “But when they see other peers, professionals and academics pursuing STEM, they can now see themselves in those roles.”

A Community of Scholars

As for what the Choose Ohio First program looks like on a college campus, Watkins shares his memories of the hands-on opportunities he experienced during his time at Youngstown State University.

“When I entered the program, I didn’t realize how deep these projects run and how important they can really be,” he says, recounting his involvement in real-world applications. “[Our part of the] science projects can be anything, from running a little experiment, but these are all pretty big deals.”

A hallmark of Choose Ohio First, Watkins says, is connectivity and support — a community that scholars belong to that provides tutoring, mentorship, career introductions, work experience, faculty engagement and groups of students who become supportive friends.

“It got me engaged with several faculty members and outside organizations in ways that I couldn’t have,” Watkins says.

At Columbus State Community College, Choose Ohio First scholars meet at least monthly to discuss what’s going well, their struggles and relevant career topics.

“We talk about the value of having a mentor at work … what the interviewers are thinking of during an interview, and so on,” says Alli Kurzawa, Participant Coordinator in the Columbus State Community College Grants Office.

The school brings local industry leaders to speak, who share their own career tracks, emerging trends in their fields and advice for scholars. Eighty-five percent of Columbus State Community College’s IT flexible apprenticeship and modern manufacturing work study students transition into full-time jobs and make an average of $76,500 with a two-year degree.

“We require our scholars to participate in career-exploration activities like meetups, job shadowing, webinars and academic clubs,” Kurzawa says.

That type of support also tends to build upon itself with students strengthening their connections with one another.
     Student drawing diagram in classroom (photo by Doug Garmon)

STEM student working in class at The University of Akron. (photo by Doug Garmon)

“I’m so proud of the things students come up with,” Kurzawa  says. “They’ll be networking with neighbors, identifying options within their chosen career they didn’t even know about, and then at our monthly meetings, they share these opportunities with each other. It’s a real, nice community feel.”

Nicholson-Sweval adds that scholars at the University of Akron who require additional resources are connected to relevant campus offerings.

“They might need to meet with our retention coordinators and specialists on an ongoing basis, and we determine the needs students have,” she explains. “That might mean connecting to mental health support or if they are experiencing food insecurity, we can help with those referrals."

There’s also a strong workforce component of support, too. The University of Akron’s career services department ensures that all scholars are taking part in workshops like how to create a resume, job shadowing and practicums, depending on the major.

The University of Akron was one of the first participating institutions in Choose Ohio First. Nicholson-Sweval says the school has an average of 350 scholars with grants from $1,500 to $8,000 that renew each academic year.

The Choose Ohio First program is also helping support colleges located in rural parts of Ohio. For example, at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Choose Ohio First awarded grants to support the school’s Cybersecurity and Network Systems program along with the fields of nursing and allied health, and natural resources and workforce programs.

“Right away, we tie [students] into valuable resources, including advisors, tutoring, and it gives them a boost of confidence that they can do this,” says Stephen Powell, Chief of Staff at Hocking College.

Connecting education to occupations is a focus at Hocking College as well.

“Our workforce development department works hand in hand with companies and organizations,” Powell says. “The heavy-equipment program here associates with the [Local 18] union, and some of their professionals are instructors here. We are not only pushing to get students hired, we are also doing the hands-on training in association with our partners.”

Saying “Yes” to Opportunity

Choose Ohio First shows students from all backgrounds that they have access to studying STEM fields. The program strongly emphasizes increasing underrepresented students. As Turner points out, that definition can vary.

“It depends on the field, and one example we give that expands that thinking is in nursing, which is heavily dominated by women,” she says. “If an institution decides to include nursing in their Choose Ohio First program, they might emphasize recruiting more men into the field.”

Schools determine what defines an underrepresented student based on geography, industry data and where there are demographic gaps in the typical STEM student population.

“We need to be purposeful and thoughtful in the ways we are responding to the needs of our communities and our communities are diverse,” says Kurzawa of Columbus State Community College. “We want to be sure our programs are, too, and our institution has the support and training and wellness to bring students in and make them feel supported.”

She suggests students ask their high school counselors, college admissions and financial-aid departments this question: Who can help me think more about funding for my degree?

“I encourage first-time college goers to ask the question, find out more,” she says. “Claim it. Say, ‘I belong here,’ and ask someone to help you."

Husted echoes that advice when it comes to students keeping an open mind about what’s possible.

“STEM means a lot of different things,” he says. “See what is available and don’t be intimated. Don’t think this isn’t for you, because it can be for you.”

This story ran in the Summer-Fall 2023 issue of College 101.