Inayah O’Neil and the importance of empowering student success in STEM

Last summer, Richmond Community High School student Inayah O’Neil won best presentation during the ‘STARS’ Summer Challenge. This summer, not only is she a peer mentor for the program, but an incoming freshman with VCU’s College of Engineering

Inayah O’Neil

For as long as she can remember, Inayah O’Neil has been fascinated by computer science.

Throughout high school, she knew she wanted to go into a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, but was initially hesitant, thinking she didn’t have enough experience. When O’Neil’s guidance counselor introduced her to the ‘STARS’ program at VCU, she jumped at the opportunity. 

STARS — Supporting Tech Achievement for Richmond Students — aims to support students from populations typically underrepresented in engineering and computer science, with a long-term goal of increasing the diversity of the tech talent workforce in Virginia. STARS is a collaboration between Bank of America, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) and VCU Engineering working to provide STEM education to students across the Richmond region.

While the program offers many opportunities, there was a specific event that piqued O’Neil’s interest – the STARS Summer Challenge. 

She participated in the challenge during the summer of 2022, where the students were tasked with analyzing Richmond-specific data concerning urban heat islands and then to present their findings. With her enthusiasm towards data science and eagerness to learn, O’Neil’s work won best presentation at the end of the two-week camp.

“I was definitely nervous at first, but they really worked to make sure I felt supported and that I could ask for help whenever I needed it,” O’Neil said. “The program really made a huge difference in how I view computer science and STEM as a whole.”

For many students, there are significant barriers to cross when getting involved in STEM. Inadequate access to education and a historic underrepresentation of women and people of color (POC) are just some of the factors that can steer students away from pursuing a STEM career. The STARS program is actively working to combat these barriers and create more accessible pathways for underrepresented students to get involved, leading to a more equitable and diverse future for the tech industry.

O’Neil was encouraged by the representation she saw during the program, saying, “I saw the representation a lot. We were able to interact with researchers, professors and students, and I was really excited. I was like, ‘they look like me and I can do this too!’ It was heartwarming to feel. Definitely empowering.”

The confidence she gained throughout the program motivated her to continue pursuing STEM. Currently, O’Neil is working as a peer mentor for this year’s Summer Challenge as she prepares to attend the VCU College of Engineering in the fall.

Growing up in Richmond, O’Neil is no stranger to VCU. She always knew it was at the top of her list of colleges, but says it was the STARS program that truly solidified her decision to attend.

“VCU has really been a part of my whole life, my grandmother has a Ph.D from VCU in Early Childhood Development; but, between the STARS program, being able to talk to current VCU students and the support of Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, I was really pulled in and I was all in after that point.”

O’Neil was excited to mention Stanley-Shanks, director of outreach, diversity and inclusion at VCU Engineering and a STARS program organizer, as one of the people who made the biggest impact. She provided inspiration for O’Neil as both an incoming student and a peer mentor. 

O’Neil’s goal working with the program is to be there for the students the way Jenilee was for her.

“I really want to be that person you go to when you have no idea what you’re doing,” O’Neil said.

The process of developing from a student to a mentor in the STARS program empowered her to continue exploring her passion for STEM as a computer science major.

“I’m really excited for the feel of community you get all over the university, especially in the engineering college,” O’Neil said. “ I was really expecting it to feel stuffy and scary, but there’s a warmth to VCU engineering that I love.” 

O’Neil’s story is an empowering example of what students can accomplish when given the opportunity to explore their interest in STEM. As she prepares to embark on her journey with VCU Engineering, she is inspired knowing that she can make a difference being a part of this new generation of engineers.