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Bergeron Scholars Program nurtures future STEM leaders

Two women looking into the camera

Supporting undergraduates pursuing careers in STEM is more important today than ever. That’s because our increasingly complex society depends on them: from manufacturing to healthcare, information security and food production. Additionally, a serious gender gap exists for women in STEM fields. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report states that only 25% of workers in computer and mathematical occupations are women. In architecture and engineering occupations, only 14% of employees are women.

The Bergeron Scholars Program at UC Berkeley is working to address these challenges and nurture confidence in young scientists, helping make their Berkeley dreams come true.

“Exposure to the amazing women from this program has helped me decide that I want to work toward my Ph.D.,” said Kseniya Usovich ’21, a cognitive science major at Cal who plans to work as a data scientist for a few years before graduate school. “Before I became a Bergeron Scholar, I wasn’t completely sure I should even go for a master’s degree.”

“I grew up in a culture where women are openly called stupid and not good enough to be scientists or programmers,” added Usovich.

Even after she moved to the United States from her native Belarus, Usovich was leaning toward non-STEM majors as they seemed less intimidating.

But all that changed for Usovich, thanks to the Bergeron Scholars Program. The program provides five new scholarships annually to talented undergraduate women studying STEM who demonstrate financial need.

Sandra Bergeron, former venture partner of Trident Capital and board member for F5 Networks, Qualys, and Sophos Group, created the program. The program does more than fund scholarships: it gives students access to a comprehensive suite of support resources, including funding for internships, academic assistance, networking and career development opportunities.

A hallmark of the program is the mentorship that scholars receive from senior-level female executives. Mentors help Bergeron Scholars with advice about their careers and help them understand their goals, manage their priorities, and much more.

“The mentorship is the best part,” said Bergeron Scholar Silver Alkhafaji ’19, who graduated from Cal with a degree in chemical biology. “I would never have gotten my current position without help from my mentor, Shiva Malek.”

Malek is a senior director and principal scientist at Genentech. She helped Alkhafaji get a position as a scientific researcher at the biotechnology company. Alkhafaji plans to study pharmacology at graduate school at UC San Francisco. She wants to help improve drug design and development for under-met medical needs with an interest in cancer-fighting drugs.

“Shiva was an immigrant like me,” said Alkhafaji, who grew up in Iraq then moved to Jordan with her family as war refugees before moving to the United States in 2013. “She shared with me what to expect in my field. To have a mentor like that at that time in my life was priceless.”

The Bergeron Scholars Program is housed in the Cal NERDS STEM Student Center, which undergraduate and graduate students call a home away from home because it provides valuable resources: a place to study, advising assistance, research poster printing capability, and a food and resource pantry.

The Bergeron Scholars Program was recently endowed and is open to philanthropic support from parents, alumni and friends who wish to support this initiative and its effort to address the gender gap for women in STEM.

To learn more about supporting this program, contact Jessica Arevalo-Hillenat jarevalohillen@berkeley.edu. To become a mentor, contact Diana Lizarraga at nerds@berkeley.edu or 510.778.5165.

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