President Obama honors Jackson School GeoFORCE program

Sherry Tucci

President Obama awarded the Jackson School of Geosciences’ GeoFORCE Texas program Friday with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, one of the highest federal honors for a university.

The Presidential Award is given to programs or individuals, especially to those reaching out to underrepresented communities, that focus on mentorship and promote education in STEM fields. GeoFORCE was the only program honored this year. 

The GeoFORCE Texas program works with incoming high school freshmen through the time they graduate. For a week each summer, students in the program travel to geological sites around the U.S. to learn about earth sciences. During the program, mentors and instructors educate students and provide them with college and career advice. 

Geology senior Victoria Fortiz participated in GeoFORCE Texas from 2008 to 2012 and mentored students for the program her freshman year of college. She said mentors and instructors check in with the students throughout the school year for things such as PSAT/SAT preparation and college application seminars.

“That was really helpful because I was the oldest in my family, and my parents didn’t go to college, so just having the support [was great],” Fortiz said.

Since the program’s inception in 2005, GeoFORCE Texas has expanded from its first partner, Southwest Texas Junior College, to schools in Houston. The program is one of the first to address the shortage of students coming from economically disadvantaged environments, according to Samuel Moore, director of outreach and diversity for the Jackson School.

“In 2010, it expanded to … schools in inner-city Houston,” said Moore. “[The program] targets economically disadvantaged students who might not be aware of the opportunity.” 

Of the students who participate in the program, 100 percent of them graduate high school, 96 percent go to college, and 64 percent choose a STEM field of study, as reported on the GeoFORCE website. 

“[The numbers are] very impressive,” Jackson School dean Sharon Mosher said. “There are no other numbers like that [caliber] that I know of.”

Many of these students never considered the possibility of studying geological or Earth sciences before GeoFORCE, according to Mosher.

“I think the most valuable aspect of the program is that it truly changes lives,” Mosher said. “It takes students who come from underrepresented groups … and has been successful at getting them to go to college and also successful in getting a majority of them to go into a STEM field.”