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  • Writer's pictureTaylor Meyer

CLIMB Internship: How One Program Built a Bridge Over a St. Louis Divide

There are many lines that divide St. Louis, Missouri. Situated between two powerful rivers that cut through the heart of the country, St. Louis is separated into city and county and then broken down further into smaller municipalities. There are also the roadways and highways, the routes of the MetroLink and other public transportation laid over the hills of eastern Missouri. But there are other lines that exist in St. Louis. Ones that don’t readily appear on a map but can be seen when driving from one zip code to another.

The University of Missouri - St. Louis is situated among the neighborhoods of St. Louis’s North County. Natural Bridge Road runs between the north and south campus and both are bordered by old brick homes and family businesses in weathered buildings. UMSL is an eight minute drive from Jennings High School, one of St. Louis County’s secondary schools. Although they are in close proximity to one another, there is a high number of students in the Jennings school district who might never attend a university. Invisible lines, which are consequences of the city’s unique history of racism and class discrimination built into its real estate business, have cornered certain demographics in a space that is hard to climb out of.

In 2015, a partnership was formed between UMSL and Jennings High School that would be a catalyst for other universities in Missouri with breaking through those barriers. The Collaborative Laboratory Internships and Mentoring Blueprint (CLIMB) Program was started between Dr. Anthony Robinson, Remy Bryant, and Dr. Patricia Parker, in an effort to immerse students into the world of STEM careers and research. They began with just five interns working in UMSL’s laboratories and have developed into paid full-time internships that empower the youth in some of St. Louis’s low opportunity districts.

Dr. Parker has been with UMSL for 20 years as the Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies. She says that it was the university’s connection with the community that attracted her, and yet she was unaware at the time of the impact that CLIMB would have on the St. Louis community. Shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, Dr. Parker received a phone call from a previous student, Remy Bryant. Remy had moved into education herself and asked Dr. Parker if she would join an advisory board for the Lead the Way program. At this time Dr. Parker’s research had included areas such as the Galapagos, but with the changes happening in St. Louis, she knew it was time to focus more on what was happening in her own city.

While working on the Lead the Way program, Remy Bryant, who teaches biology at Jennings High School, began looking for ways to create smoother transitions for her students as they moved onto college. Most students at her high school are first generation students. “I knew there was a need,” she explains. “One thing I really wanted to hone in on was support.” Remy’s project began with partnering the high school students with students at UMSL. Dr. Parker and the UMSL student mentors became involved and the beginnings of CLIMB had started to take shape.

As the program developed, it gained additional support from Dr. Rhonda Key and later Dr. Miranda Ming. Dr. Key has been in the field of education for the past 33 years and has worked in many different types of communities. She currently serves as the assistant superintendent of Jennings High School as well as their head administrator. “What was exciting,” she says of joining the CLIMB program. “These kids had the opportunity to actually work in a lab. Not to be lab assistants or the people who washed test tubes, they got to do research with graduate students and professors.” Towards the beginning, Dr. Key helped recruit students for the internships, but later played a crucial role in identifying ways the team could make the program even more beneficial to the students.

“I think that was the start of a new program,” Dr. Ming says of the changes that occurred within their first year. “That was really the start of us developing CLIMB and what we envisioned this opportunity to look like, not only for Jennings’ students, but for other students from our demographic.”

The Jennings High School population is 100% African-American and 100% free lunch eligible. Students and staff face a multitude of difficulties, many of which are determined by the area they live in. St. Louis has a unique and complex history when looking at race and class relations. Immediately following the Civil War, St. Louis was influenced by the south through means of the Mississippi river but also became home to a large number of African-Americans during the Great Migration periods, a combination that fueled the fires of segregation. Not only would the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange become the first in the nation to enforce racial segregation on housing, but over the next couple centuries the city would continue to experience partitioning of races and classes through restrictive deed covenants and redlining. Barrier upon barrier was constructed, resulting in immobility for many of St. Louis’s minorities and lower class. Lines that continue to influence St. Louis residents today.

As the program developed, the CLIMB team approached obstacles using a different perspective than had been done previously. The program had already moved from part-time to full-time, and it was suggested that the interns be paid more to limit competition with other jobs, as having an income was a necessity for many of the interns. When students began to fall asleep during their shifts, the team looked at the bigger picture instead of assuming the level of commitment in the students. Although the interns were being paid, much of that paycheck was going to helping family members and paying their own bills; many were not eating. The team adjusted, and soon provided the interns with paid meal passes through UMSL. When students arrived late, they were asked why. Most of the students didn’t have their own forms of transportation and found their way to UMSL by any means possible, so the team began including MetroLink passes with the internship. “We looked at those minor things that some of us take for granted,” Dr. Key explains. “Others may have said the kids weren’t interested, so we’re going to let it go, we took care of those small things and then the program was able to grow.”

The process of joining the CLIMB internship is experience in itself as it mirrors applying and interviewing for a job. Dr. Parker and her associates at UMSL produce a list of job descriptions for each lab that is seeking interns. The list is then handed over to Dr. Ming and Dr. Key and those involved at the high school, and students submit their attendance record and GPA as a resume. They choose three positions that best fit their interests, and then they get to interview with the team.

Dakota Warren, one of the CLIMB interns who is now an UMSL student, describes the work she performed in Dr. Parker’s lab as more “hands on.” She participated in an internship before joining CLIMB where she thought maybe she didn’t like research. Working with the team at UMSL helped her to see research in a whole new light. Dakota spent part of the time in the lab and part of the time in Dr. Parker’s backyard, collecting samples from birds as they studied avian malaria. “They didn’t just give us something to do to keep us busy,” Dakota says. “We were doing work that other grad students were doing.”

Dr. Ming, UMSL alumna and principal of Jennings High School during her work with CLIMB, says that the internship program was not only beneficial for students, it has helped the teachers and Dr. Key and herself. “We now think differently about what our roles and responsibilities are,” she explains. “When you see where our students begin the year as far as their assessment scores and with different barriers that they overcome, they not only connect their knowledge from the labs to their classroom, they can be professionals and present on concepts and terms that many people would say would not be possible for our demographic. It’s truly humbling.”

After seeing the success of this program, we must start looking for other ways to connect our community and share what we have to offer. The partnership between UMSL and the CLIMB program is evidence that lines drawn throughout our history should no longer be boundaries that tell us how far we can go. It is possible to construct bridges over those divides. UMSL has provided tools and resources for a successful program, but the power lies within the interns of CLIMB. They are the forces who have succeeded against all odds. Dr. Key reflects on how different her life could have been if she were raised in a zip code such as Jennings, with high numbers of free lunch eligibility and crime. “If I’m a student who is academically successful, a scholar, I should be able to still go to a high school in those zip codes and have the same benefits as if I were in a Ladue or Rockwood school,” she says. “And I believe we have provided that dream and that possibility.”


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