Sharna Jahan Hossain, Dallas Elleman and Sophia Ibargüen are community college alumni from different corners of the country who have something very special in common: participating in the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) has moved their lives in very impressive directions.
For Jahan Hossain, CCIC helped her transfer to an Ivy League college; for Elleman, the competition experience led to scholarships, fellowships and experiences that put him on track to earn a doctorate; and for Ibargüen, being able to describe the nanoparticle cancer treatment idea that she and her three Pasadena City College teammates developed to win the CCIC competition in 2021 helped her secure a job as an undergraduate researcher in her first week at a four-year university.
The American Association of Community Colleges, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, is again offering community college students the opportunity to discover and demonstrate their capacity to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems.
Students are encouraged to form two-to-four-person teams and begin developing ideas that they will explain in a written essay and a 90-second video. Both of these Phase I aspects of the competition are due March 30.
Ten finalist teams will conclude Phase II of the competition at CCIC’s Innovation Boot Camp June 13-16 in the Washington, D.C., area where the students will receive coaching to refine their STEM ideas for the marketplace. The competition concludes with students’ pitches to a distinguished panel of judges and poster presentations for STEM leaders and congressional stakeholders.
Every finalist team member, including faculty/administrator mentors, will receive full travel support to the boot camp and $500 cash honorariums. Cash prizes in the following amounts will go to each member of the top three teams: $3,000 to first place; $2,000 to second place; and $1,000 to third place.
To help teams get started, AACC and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship will hold a virtual session on February 15 for potential applicants to share their ideas and receive informal feedback from a former CCIC judge and student participant. Register for the one-hour session.
Beyond the comfort zone
For Sharna Jahan Hossain, nailing the pitch and question-and-answer sessions of the 2021 competition for her Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) team boosted her confidence. “I never had such a positive experience in public speaking before,” she said of the praise she received from the competition’s judges. The three-person team won second place for its virtual reality app to help autistic children learn.
Unencumbered by the shyness that had previously made her reluctant to ask or answer questions in class, within weeks of the CCIC Jahan Hossain ran for president of BMCC’s computer science club and won. Then she applied to Columbia University – something that had not crossed her mind prior to CCIC.
“Winning second place in CCIC was a very exciting achievement in my life, and I was able to discuss the experience in my application essay to Columbia University as well,” she explained.
She was granted admission and transferred to Columbia after graduating from BMCC in December. In an interview during her first week of classes in January, Jahan Hossain said she feels comfortable participating in class discussions.
“Presentations are a breeze for me thanks to the pitch and presentation portions of CCIC,” she wrote in a post-competition survey. During the interview, she attributed the change to “just putting myself out there … before I was completely shy.”
Dallas Elleman pauses before answering a question about what has happened to him since 2015. It turns out so many good things have happened since his Tulsa Community College team attended the CCIC Innovation Boot Camp that he wants to be sure to capture them all.
“I think it led to everything else I’ve ever done. I mean, it was an experience that really changed who I am and that gave me additional confidence. It gave me experiences and lessons to draw from. It gave me people – you know, memorable people taught me things to remember and to draw motivation from. It was really powerful to me,” he said in an interview.
He thinks that being a finalist in the national competition helped him win a Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship in 2016. The significant financial support of that scholarship meant that after graduating from TCC with associate degrees in physics, math and electrical engineering, he could quit his full-time job and concentrate on life as a student at the University of Tulsa and still support his family of five.
CCIC fostered his interest in innovation and entrepreneurship, which influenced his participation in the NOVA fellowship at University of Tulsa and Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program.
He stayed connected to CCIC, too, serving subsequently as an industry mentor to a TCC team and as an alumni panelist who answered competitors’ questions at the boot camp. Those experiences led to his serving on a subcommittee of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
“CCIC opened many doors for me and made me aware of possibilities that I almost certainly wouldn’t have discovered on my own,” he said.
Elleman is now finishing a master’s degree in computer science and artificial intelligence at the University of Tulsa and has been selected as a CyberFellow in the cyber studies Ph.D. program at the university.
“The CCIC really, I think, was a big turning point. It sort of changed my direction, changed my trajectory, and sent me in a direction that now is a big part of my academic and professional interests,” he said.
Sophia Ibargüen says it has been “super valuable” to have been on the four-person team from Pasadena City College (PCC) that won the CCIC competition in June 2021.
First, there was the amazing feeling of accomplishing something difficult while juggling other school and work projects.
“We put our hearts and souls into the project, and it came a little bit at the cost of sleep,” Ibargüen said.
This joy was followed by the realization that she could use her $3,000 first-place prize money to replace the laptop she had been using since 2014. The age of the computer and its software became a problem during CCIC, which was virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic.
“I did not have the budget to purchase a new laptop, and PCC was super helpful. They [technology staffers] were trying to help me figure out how to log onto CCIC some days because my laptop just like wasn’t working. So immediately when we got the check, I went to Apple and I bought myself a brand new laptop. It’s just made my life so much easier since then,” she explained.
Since then, Ibargüen has also found that being able to talk about CCIC and the nanoparticle cancer treatment the team proposed is a good conversation starter. The best conversation so far occurred during her first week as a junior transfer student at the University of California, Los Angeles when she interviewed with Yi-Rong Peng, assistant professor of ophthalmology.
“It was super unique in the interview to be able to say ‘Oh yeah, me and a team of peers won a national STEM competition,’” she said, explaining that she told Peng about the team’s research and shared a video of the team’s pitch.
Peng hired her to assist with profiles of the cell-surface regulators on the retinas of mice. The research project is in collaboration with the Li Laboratory at Stanford University.
“That little elevator pitch [at CCIC], I think it definitely prepared me for that interview. I think it just really helped me work on my skills, and being able not only to sell a product, but technically, like, to sell myself as well or like my abilities to a potential employer,” Ibargüen said.
With just six months on the job, Ibargüen noted that Peng has already talked to her about working full time at the lab after she finishes her bachelor’s degree in biology in May 2023 and before she enrolls in a master’s/doctorate program. That is Ibargüen’s next big goal.