N-G Exclusive | Amazon commits $1 million for academic 'redshirt' program

N-G Exclusive | Amazon commits $1 million for academic 'redshirt' program

URBANA — Amazon is committing $1 million over five years to support an academic "redshirt" program for University of Illinois students in science and engineering.

Similar to the redshirt year commonly associated with student-athletes, the program allows up to 25 students from disadvantaged backgrounds across the state an extra year to get ready for traditional freshmen courses in science and engineering.

UI officials say the students, from both rural and urban areas, show potential to succeed in engineering but may not have had access to Advanced Placement courses or other high-level classes in high school.

Students in the Academic Redshirt in Science and Engineering program take prep courses such as pre-calculus or pre-physics and get an enhanced orientation to engineering and faculty mentors who work with them throughout their college careers.

They also have access to scholarships and financial aid to guarantee it won't cost them more to graduate in five years than if they had gone through a traditional four-year program.

The National Science Foundation provided seed money for the program in 2016 to six institutions, including the UI — $5 million over five years to create a bridge year for incoming freshmen. Illinois receives $160,000 a year, including $130,000 for scholarships, but that money doesn't cover all the costs, UI officials said.

The money from Amazon will help fill that gap, providing funding for scholarships and other opportunities, and allow the UI to continue the program beyond the original five years, officials said.

Besides the $1 million, Amazon will provide other support, including employees who will be mentors for the students, which is "amazing," said program director Ivan Favila, assistant dean in the College of Engineering.

The gift grew out of a conversation with Gregg Zehr, a UI electrical engineering alumnus and president of AmazonLab126, said Jonathan Makela, associate dean for undergraduate programs for the college.

The company wanted to help encourage a more diverse talent pool within the college, so "it seemed like a natural fit," Makela said.

"ARISE fits the community engagement mission of Amazon — to provide resources and ignite the passion for STEM education to the next generation," Zehr, a 1971 Fisher High School graduate, said in a statement. "The University of Illinois has a global reputation in engineering, and we're excited to help students who need a little extra preparation to succeed at a place like Illinois."

Makela said the UI is grateful for Amazon's help in giving more students across the state a chance to be a part of the university. The program strives to promote socioeconomic diversity in the college and gives students the best chance to succeed and earn a degree, he said.

Of the first group of 16 students admitted to the UI's redshirt program in fall 2017, 15 are still enrolled in the College of Engineering, Favila said.

"I'm quite happy with their progress and development. We've got a lot of work yet to come, but they are particularly engaged," with some considering a second degree or study abroad programs, he said.

This fall, 23 students are signed up.

"They're from all over the state," Favila said, including one student who observed that there are more students in one of her UI classes than attended her entire high school.

"It's just such a transition that a program like ARISE really makes a difference," he said.

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