Largest cohort of BUILD EXITO students to graduate this month
Author: John Kirkland, PSU Media and Public Relations
Posted: June 12, 2019

BUILD EXITO, a Portland State University program to help diverse, underrepresented students become research scientists, will graduate its largest cohort to date this June.
The 52 students completed the three-year BUILD EXITO program while pursuing their bachelor’s degrees in biomedical, behavioral, social, engineering, clinical and public health fields.
They include Elizabeth Perez (right), the first in her family to complete college. A Detroit native, Perez moved to Portland for work and enrolled at Portland Community College (PCC). She was accepted to the BUILD EXITO program there, and then transferred to PSU as a sophomore. 
“Being first-generation, I didn’t know all the different possibilities available to me. I thought I wanted to be a lab technician, but BUILD EXITO took me into a totally different direction,” she said. 
After graduation, Perez will become a Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) program at Harvard University. Her goal is to become a professor and pursue science policy on the side. 
Sulema Rodriguez (below) will be getting her degree in speech and hearing sciences, with a minor in psychology. She was accepted to graduate school at New York University and Columbia University, but chose PSU as the place where she will get her master’s degree, which she will start in the fall. Her goal is to get her Ph.D. and become a speech pathologist who can work with both English- and Spanish-speaking patients.
Her path is partially the result of her own speech difficulties – a stutter that presents challenges in her daily life.
“Before I heard about BUILD EXITO, I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to get through college because of my speech impediment,” she said. “The program helped me pay for college, and I got a lot of help from some great people in the process.”
Past graduates include one that is going to medical school at Harvard, one studying physics at Northwestern, and another studying biophysics at Berkeley.
“Being part of a cohort, they all had a group identity of being scientific scholars,” said the program’s director, Carlos Crespo.
BUILD EXITO began in 2014 when PSU received a $24 million research and training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help underrepresented and diverse students pursue careers in biomedical, behavioral, social, or clinical research and other health sciences. BUILD is a national initiative, and EXITO is PSU’s BUILD program. Each word is an acronym, which together include the words diversity and cross-disciplinary, describing the program’s mission. The first student cohort began in 2015.
The PSU grant was part of a larger $240 million investment by the NIH to develop new approaches that engage researchers, including those from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical sciences, and prepare them to thrive in the NIH-funded workforce. PSU was one of 10 primary institutions selected through this initiative, which ultimately supports 50 institutions through partnerships. 
PSU’s partners are OHSU, University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Guam, PCC, Clark College, Clackamas Community College, Northern Marianas College, and American Samoa Community College.
Students apply for the three-year program in the spring of their freshman year, either at PSU or one of the partner schools. Participants receive intensive mentoring and instruction on how scientific research is performed, then spend 10 hours a week on actual research projects at PSU or OHSU for the bulk of their time in the program. The research is on top of their other school obligations. 
Three of the students from the first cohort graduated in 2017, and another 22 graduated in 2018.  
BUILD EXITO coordinator Jen Lindwall said the program has been so successful during its first five years that the prospects are good that it will be continued for another five. That decision is in the hands of the NIH, which is likely to announce the next round of grants in early July.