Lydia Owens ’23 takes a break on the Bryan lawn.

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Junior student rediscovers all that is familiar

NCSSM junior Lydia Owens was born into a family of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics graduates. Her mother was one. So were her mother’s sisters. And as she grew older, Lydia attended NCSSM alumni events with her family.

But when the time came for Lydia to consider becoming a Unicorn, family tradition carried little importance for her and had no bearing on the admissions process.

“It wasn’t a family thing but a personal choice to apply here,” says Lydia, who came to NCSSM from Enloe High School in Raleigh where she was enrolled in the school’s Medical Bio-Science Academy. “I wanted to figure out what I could learn and really push my limits and see what I could do living away from home.”

A release

Though Lydia had grown up familiar with NCSSM through her mother and aunts, it was the school’s annual Step Up to STEM program, in which her older brother had also participated (though he chose not to apply to NCSSM), that sold Lydia on applying for NCSSM’s residential program. 

Since 2013, Step Up to STEM has welcomed underrepresented minority students from throughout the state to NCSSM’s Durham campus for hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The program has inspired and motivated hundreds of students.

It was no different for Lydia. Her very first day in the program as a rising freshman was a game-changer. “It was the first time I had been around so many African-American kids and Latinx kids that were all interested in STEM,” she says.

What Step Up to STEM offered Lydia was a chance to finally shed some of the pressure she had long felt to excel as an African-American female, and instead just be herself. She had not even fully realized its weight until she was able to slip out from beneath some of it. In past experiences, she had sometimes felt self-conscious about speaking up in male-dominated classes, fearful that she would subconsciously be recognized not as a fellow classmate, but as one of the few African-Americans or females in the class. There was always the concern that if she incorrectly answered a question in front of her peers, or had a bad day in the classroom, her race or gender might unfairly be tied to her struggles. 

But Step Up to STEM provided Lydia with a safe place for her voice to be heard without fear of judgement or pressure to adequately represent. “There were a lot of girls in Step Up to STEM and we [both males and females] were all able to respect each other intellectually and that allowed us to grow outside of that.”

Having female role models leading many of the classes was also an encouragement. “That was so reassuring and empowering in terms of knowing that my female identity wasn’t the focus when I was in the classroom. I could just raise my hand as me, speak as me, and feel like I was just being myself.”

“It was great, especially in terms of the mentors and teachers in the program,” Lydia says. “I had Dr. [Letitia] Hubbard and Dr. [Monique] Williams for my classes and they were just amazing as two Black females teaching in STEM, which I had not experienced before coming to Step Up to STEM.”

That’s exactly the sentiment Step Up to STEM is designed to elicit, says Dr. Hubbard who, in addition to leading Step Up to STEM, teaches engineering and mentorship at NCSSM. “We are grateful,” she says,” to have had the opportunity through Step Up to STEM to inspire Lydia and so many students like her who thrive in environments where they can be themselves and see themselves reflected in the very fabric of the community.”

One person in particular became a significant role model for Lydia outside of the classroom. In her second year in Step Up to STEM, for which Blue Cross Blue Shield NC provided funding, Lydia became acquainted with Pam Diggs, then a Community and Diversity Engagement Program Manager at BCBSNC, who served on a guest panel during the summer program. Inspired by Diggs, Lydia reached out to her through email after the panel. 

“We’ve been in contact ever since,” Lydia says. 

Through Diggs, who is now BCBSBC’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Lydia has also become involved in Partnership for a Healthy Durham, a community collaborative dedicated to the health and vitality of Durham’s residents, and which Diggs co-chairs. 

“She’s really been amazing in terms of sharing her public health knowledge with me,” Lydia says, “and getting me interested in that field and showing me how I can combine my interest in health care and social justice and law into a possible career choice, which is what I want to do.”

“It has truly been inspiring for me to engage with Lydia ever since she participated in the NCSSM Step Up to STEM program,” Diggs says of Lydia. “She has an extremely bright future ahead of her and is a great example of what can happen when we create space for young people to harness their talents to change the world for good.”

“I can be myself”

There’s no question that the pace and academic rigor at NCSSM is, for most students, greater than that which they’ve experienced elsewhere. But that’s why NCSSM’s students applied to the school — to challenge themselves in a way they’ve never been challenged before. With that new challenge comes an added sense of pressure, especially for the school’s incoming juniors who are adjusting to a whole new life, both academically and socially.

For Lydia, it’s been the opposite, even though her position as an African-American female in a STEM school puts her under a societal spotlight not always directed so fiercely at others.

“I still feel pressure, and I’m learning what that means and what part of that is me and what part of that is something or someone else,” Lydia says. “But with Step Up to STEM, and with Science and Math in general even in my first week, I feel like I’m actually 16 now, and I can have friends and have fun and balance classes and all that. It’s such a new experience not having as much pressure on getting the grade and meeting the metrics to seem like I’m representing my race, my gender. I can be myself at Science and Math and be less of a metric and really figure out, ‘Who’s Lydia and what does she do for fun?’”

Perhaps most importantly, Lydia is already rediscovering the joy of learning simply for the sake of learning. On her first day as a residential student, one of her classes began with an open-ended project. For a student who had become accustomed to studying all semester for a final exam and grade, it was like returning to the earliest days of school as a child when everything felt new and exciting. 

“My brain just felt like it exploded and opened up,” she said at the time. “I hadn’t felt creative in class in years. I know I’ve only been here a week, but already I feel like I’m a different person than the one that was dropped off.”