CTREE Helping Students Achieve and Surpass Goals
By Bradi Zapata
For more than 20 years, the Center for Training Research and Educational Excellence (CTREE) has given ambitious students a home and a safe space to explore their new and longstanding goals. With over $11 million in funding and a 100% success rate in the 2021-22 academic year for graduate school acceptance, it is evident that CTREE is a pillar of Cal State San Marcos.
CTREE formerly was known as the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences (OTRES) from 2010-2022 and as the Office for Biomedical Research & Training (OBRT) from 2000-2010. Denise Garcia, CTREE director, changed the name this fall to reflect the official recognition of center status and the expansion of programs to support students from all majors.
CTREE offers nine programs to support students, though the number often changes as the team consistently looks for opportunities to expand resources. The mission of the center is to enhance the educational and research experiences of students from historically/presently excluded and underserved backgrounds in higher education. CTREE enhances the experience of its scholars by offering one-on-one advising and research opportunities, assistance with the graduate school application process, Graduate Record Examination resource materials, student presentations and attendance at conferences across the U.S., and the chance to network with industry professionals.
“All of our students are from historically/presently excluded backgrounds in education, and so helping them see and understand the value and knowledge they bring into their unique fields is such an important aspect of what we do,” said Richard Armenta, CTREE associate director and an associate professor of kinesiology.
“So many times, students don’t see anyone who looks like them or they’re told, ‘You don't belong here.’ So an incredibly important aspect of what CTREE does is help these students develop confidence that they belong and can contribute significantly to their fields.”
For 2019 graduate Faye Raymond, being part of the CTREE programs provided her with the resources and structure to apply to graduate school. Now a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the University at Buffalo, Raymond praises the center for teaching her fundamentals that set her ahead of her peers in graduate school – skills such as networking, making a research poster, writing data and constructing data in a way that’s consumable.
Each CTREE program provides support in a more personal way as well. For students like Raymond, it gives them a community and family to call their own.
“For myself, especially as a person of color in STEM and a woman of color in STEM, the program really did help me in grappling with loneliness (that I experienced). Just the community that the program provided for me alone was fantastic,” Raymond said. “I would 100% recommend CTREE to any student – I actually can’t recommend it enough.”
This atmosphere is fostered by the center’s open-door policy and a welcoming culture that's made possible with the help of an entire village across campus. Many faculty members work closely with the students and teach them how to be successful not only in research labs but in life.
Faculty are at the root of CTREE’s accomplishments. They take students in their labs, conduct creative activities, offer hands-on mentorship and attend conferences with students. Fundamentally, they are dedicated to providing meaningful opportunities for students, instilling the confidence not only to achieve goals, but surpass them.
Natalie Campos, a CTREE scholar and pre-med biological sciences major, discovered a calling for research after working in a lab with Casey Mueller, a CTREE faculty mentor and biological sciences professor.
“I came into this program thinking that I was going to go straight into pursuing a career in the medical field,” Campos said. “I never knew I needed time in research, but this opened my eyes to involving research in my future goals. Now, I might want to work as a clinical researcher.”
Campos found a home in CTREE after discussing her research findings with peers at a conference in Seattle. Those peers soon became a family she would lean on, cry to and celebrate with.
CTREE encourages, and provides funding for, students to attend discipline-specific conferences across the United States, where they can network with keynote speakers, visit graduate school booths, present research findings, engage in activities from universities they may be interested in applying to, and attend professional development seminars.
Raymond Malfavon-Borja, assistant director of the TRIO McNair Scholars Program and a biological sciences lecturer, knows firsthand how transformational these opportunities can be for students. Malfavon-Borja is a CSUSM alumnus, and after excelling in one of Garcia’s genetics courses, she invited him to join her lab. He was subsequently accepted to a CTREE program. The program’s resources and Garcia’s training helped him gain acceptance to a summer training program at Stanford University followed by a Ph.D. program for genome sciences at the University of Washington immediately after he earned his undergraduate degree.
Once Garcia received funding for the McNair program, she knew Malfavon-Borja would be the perfect person to lead the initiative because, like her, he is passionate about fostering students' growth, academically and personally.
“CTREE as a whole is student-focused,” Malfavon-Borja said. “We work really hard to build up these programs and put our heart and souls into them. A lot of us have a philosophy in the office: Our students have limitless potential. They’re ambitious and they’re hard-working. So we’re going to meet them where they are and hold ourselves to the same high standards, because they deserve it.”
For Garcia, watching scholars get accepted into graduate school makes her feel like she’s a parent, humbly and proudly watching a child go off to college. A large smile crosses her face when she describes the joyous feeling of seeing a student, who two years earlier knew nothing about graduate school, hold their head high and radiate confidence after nailing an interview.
“This institution wouldn't exist and CTREE wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the students,” Garcia said. “We are truly here to support students in any way that we can so that they can be successful throughout their pathway in their education.”
Students from over 22 majors have completed programs through CTREE, and the team conducts outreach across campus to improve students’ awareness of their programs. For the most up-to-date list of programs with application information and eligibility criteria, visit the CTREE website.
Eric Breier, Interim Assistant Director of Public Affairs and Operations
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