By Published: Nov. 5, 2019

The Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program teaches students to listen to, understand and connect with one another across backgrounds, values and experiences

When Kellie Lam walks into the small offices of the Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program (MASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, she feels a part of the campus community. 

“I have a place on campus that I can go to every day and say hi to someone,” says Lam, who is majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. “Walking in (to MASP), it doesn't feel like I'm in a room full of strangers.”


Celeste Montoya, Karen Ramirez and Kate Semsar. At the top of the page are student participants in the summer program.

Through evidence-based programming for traditionally underrepresented and/or first-generation students, MASP fosters a high achieving community of capable scholars who are dedicated to their pursuit of academic excellence.

“We’ve worked really hard to make this a rigorous, intellectually rich environment,” says Celeste Montoya, MASP’s director and an associate professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies. “Building an inclusive academic community, which requires teaching (students) to work across difference, is a powerful tool and resource for them to draw from in their academic and life endeavors.”

MASP’s work continues in a time in which Americans’ ability to understand one another is declining. Despite unprecedented access to one another’s stories through social media and the internet, studies show that empathy is rapidly decreasing. In fact, one University of Michigan study found the average American college student in 2009 was less empathetic than 75 percent of Americans 30 years before. 

MASP is striving to change this. Their faculty and staff have added opportunities in their summer program, academic programming, mentorship training, classes and graduation ceremony for students to develop their identities on campus and navigate their differences.

Many students in MASP say these programmatic changes allow them to be better seen and understood, which makes the program’s participants feel like their campus family.

“Everyone is always here for you, no matter what it is about,” says Paulina Armendariz, who is majoring in integrative physiology. “It can be personal, it can be about school, it can be about anything. They'll help you out.”

Building a high achieving, inclusive community 

Since 2000, MASP students’ retention rate through their second year averages roughly 95%, and around 85% of the program’s students graduate within six years. By comparison, the retention rate is 10% higher and the graduation rate is 20% higher than traditionally underrepresented and/or first-generation students in arts and sciences who do not participate in the program. 

While 96% of MASP students cite the program as a primary reason for their academic success and ability to overcome their greatest college-experience challenge, Montoya specifically attributes much of their success over the last four years to MASP’s programming that combines high standards, a culturally engaging curriculum, scholarly identity and helping students feel valued within a supportive community.

The goal is to boost students’ sense of belonging by “giving (them) the tools to build the community that they want,” says Montoya. “They're not just joining a community that already existed, but they are, on a day-to-day basis, building the community that they want to be a part of.”

MASP faculty and staff look for opportunities to help students develop innovative methods to make higher education accessible and inclusive for everyone. For example, faculty members Karen Ramirez, assistant director of arts, humanities and social science education, and Kate Semsar, assistant director of STEM education, drew on their research on higher education to create the class Student Ambassadors for Inclusive Education, whose goal is to help students think critically about their college experiences.

They are not just surviving at CU. They are changing it.”

“We’ve drawn on each of our backgrounds and strengths to think through how students experience education in inclusive and non-inclusive ways, and the impacts of that on their education,” says Ramirez. 

Students in the course critique alternative models and teaching practices that can improve the classroom experiences of a more diverse student body. Along the way, students “recognize that you have voice and that your voice matters. And your experience matters,” says Ramirez. “And it may have been defined (by someone else) in ways you don’t have to take on. You don’t have to use somebody else’s language for your experience.”

In MASP’s classes and programming, students learn more about themselves, their fellow high achieving peers in MASP and the manner each individual navigates CU Boulder. Kelsey Rickert, who is majoring in sociology as well as women and gender studies, notes that MASP’s classes have especially helped students have authentic discussions that build trust.

“(My MASP class) really helped me consider where everyone was coming from and how we can have a genuine conversation about (any topic) without being hurtful.”

Jaela Zellars, who is majoring in integrative physiology, says this allows her to feel truly seen. “(MASP) provides me with a place to really be able to be myself and to express my most authentic self.”

Assessment that sees the whole person

To deepen their understanding of the factors that lead to students’ achievements and challenges, MASP’s faculty and staff are developing innovative ways to measure success.

Throughout the academic year, MASP collects student feedback and adjusts programming based on the findings. They also gather an overview of each student’s experience, including their GPA, sense of belonging, degree of growth or fixed mindset as well as each student’s belief that they have the tools to succeed in college.

The wider perspective creates a stronger understanding of the experiences that boost students and of the barriers that prevent them from being as successful as they could be. This strategy considers each individual’s abilities in a broader, supportive group of students, faculty and staff. 

“I always go in assuming that each student is (at CU Boulder) for a reason and they did really well to get here,” says Semsar, who manages their assessment strategies. “But if they are not finding success, is there something about their environment that is getting in their way? Are they a part of a community that can work together to solve (those problems)?”

Toward an empathetic community

MASP’s programmatic and assessment choices allow them to “not just notice differences and commonalities,” says Montoya, “but also really try to listen and hear and understand those different experiences.”

Students note that a community built on empathy both widens their points of view and offers them tools to step into difficult conversations.

“I come into the office, and I get to experience a lot of different people's perspectives on things,” says Rickert. As a result, she sees “what's going on for them on campus that I might not be experiencing.”

Giovanni Venzor Melendez, who is majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, agrees. “We can have a serious and good conversation with people who have different beliefs (than) us. At the end of the day, we are still going to support one another in our endeavors in life.”

That ability to bridge differences and empathize helps students collaborate on complex problems and find original solutions. As a result, of the 96% of MASP students who participate in campus community groups outside of MASP, 72% are in leadership roles.

“I am continually amazed by the talents that [our students] bring,” says Montoya. “Their strength and resiliency. Their agency. They are strong and capable.” 

“They are not just surviving at CU. They are changing it.”

Learn more about MASP at this link; support the program at this link.