Ruben Nieto

Ruben Nieto

Space Explorers

Little Village native Ruben Nieto has always had a passion for science. It’s an interest that grew during his three years participating in the UChicago STEM Initiative (UCSI) — a free science enrichment program for 9th and 10th-grade Chicago Public Schools students — and one he’ll be able to nurture as a first-year biochemistry major at the University of Chicago next fall. The soon-to-be first-generation college student is confident he can thrive as a UChicago student, crediting his years in UCSI with helping him to build the research and critical thinking skills he needed to earn a full scholarship.

“Growing up in Little Village, college feels like a big step,” Nieto, who attends Rauner College Prep, says. “But with all UCSI’s workshops and college readiness classes and stuff, you start to stop seeing college as something unattainable but as something that is really possible if you put in the work.” 

UCSI programming readied Nieto for the rigor of college coursework, he says. Being on UChicago’s campus also helped him picture himself as a college student — and as a UChicago student, specifically: “I knew I wanted to stay in Chicago and walking on campus to the classes, I felt a welcoming vibe from the other students and loved how they were really eager to learn,” he says. 

For his mom, Laura, Nieto’s participation in UCSI, and her own participation in the Office of Civic Engagement’s new college readiness and access Parent Advisory Committee, was a chance to get some much-needed support in navigating the college application and scholarship process. Though she has two older children who attended college, Laura Nieto says their high schools didn’t offer enough guidance on the financial aid process. Ruben’s admission to UChicago on a full ride, she says, was life-changing.

“[With my older children,] the acceptance letters were there but the loans were also there. We didn’t understand the process, so this program, to us, has meant the opportunity to have Ruben go to a prestigious college without debt and not only that but be prepared to thrive on campus,” Laura Nieto said.

Nieto was first drawn to UCSI, offered through the Office of Civic Engagement’s Office of Special Programs-College Prep (OSP), after learning about the program’s partnership with the University’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP). The Space Explorers Program, operated by KICP, gives students the opportunity to meet and work with astronomers and physicists, handle high-tech scientific instruments, and explore the universe. UCSI participants like Nieto also have the opportunity to interact with University faculty, staff, students, and labs; engage with college-level math and science course work; and take part in industry and lab tours and retreats. 

During his years in the program, Nieto learned about quantum computing, neural networks, artificial intelligence programs, robotics, and other areas of STEM. He also took advantage of personalized tutoring support. 

Nieto additionally participated in the University’s multiweek Neubauer Family Adelante Summer Scholars program, led by the Admissions office, for top students engaged in Hispanic/Latino communities. Aside from introducing him to peers with similar interests and leading admissions workshops, the program offered Nieto another chance to engage with his passions through a molecular engineering course.

“I know that any career in STEM involves research so having the opportunity to get that experience before college is amazing, especially for someone of my background,” he says. “And since I’m naturally curious, I loved being able to dig deeper into the topics that I was interested in.”

Those interests fueled Nieto’s UCSI work researching emerging telemedicine technology this past summer, he says, and helped strengthen a foundation of knowledge and skills for his medical career aspirations. Before he attended OSP’s annual Peter and Judy Kovler Career Conference two years ago, Nieto had never heard of a “clinical pharmacist.” He now says he wants to be one.

Nieto is looking forward to building on the research he supported through UCSI and hopes to work with the Office of Civic Engagement’s college readiness and access programs more broadly as a tutor or aid for incoming program participants during his UChicago years.

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