When Mercedes Snyder gets on the plane to head to Oak Ridge, Tennessee this summer, she’ll be leaving what she calls “the smallest small town ever” for one of the biggest opportunities she’s ever seen come her way.
The East Juniata High School sophomore is one of 26 students across 13 Appalachian states selected to attend a unique summer residential learning opportunity focusing on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For two weeks, Snyder will be at the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Summer STEM Programs.
This all-expenses-paid opportunity allows students and teachers to work with world-class scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Students will participate in intensive hands-on science, math, and computer science technology group research projects with award-winning scientists. ORNL staff will assist high school faculty in developing STEM-related curriculum.
The programs culminate in a graduation ceremony showcasing participants’ work. Now in their 29th year, the programs often are the first major exposure participating students—many of whom are from Appalachia’s most economically distressed counties—have to applied science and STEM education. The programs include lab time and visits to nearby industries, universities, and museums to experience real-world applications of science, math, and technology.
Snyder is the only student in the 11-county SEDA-Council of Governments (SEDA-COG) region that was selected to attend in this competitive process. SEDA-COG invited and supported applications from middle and high school students and high school teachers from its region for the ARC/ORNL 2018 Summer STEM Programs.
“It’s an experience I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to get,” Snyder said. “I didn’t think I’d get in, to be honest; I’m just unlucky in that regard, I suppose… It was a real confidence boost to me. I really appreciated that somewhere out there, someone looked at my application and thought, yes, this is the person I want there. Somebody read it, and was like, yeah, we want that one.”
When Snyder saw her mom’s text that stated, “Are you ready for Tennessee,” Mercedes said she “blanked for a solid 30 seconds” – and then it fully hit when her mom texted her the letter. “I felt like screaming and crying all at the same time; I was in complete and utter shock,” she said.
When she told her world history teacher, Rodney Shoop, who had encouraged her to apply, she said that “he emailed every teacher in the building, he was so proud of that. Apparently, everybody had been wondering about it.”
Her guidance counselor, Johnathan Sliski, wrote her letter of recommendation. He wrote, “Mercedes is a fantastic student with incalculable potential. I firmly believe that this experience would benefit her beyond something nice to put on a college application.”
Sliski said, “Mr. Marcus Brothers, our Life Skills Support teacher, really paying close attention to the opportunity and recommending Mercedes and working together with Mr. Shoop to introduce her to the opportunity is a testament to their willingness to go the extra mile to help students succeed and have those opportunities.”
Bill Seigel, SEDA-COG executive director, said he is appreciative for the opportunities the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Programs offer to the students and teachers of the region, and congratulated Snyder.
“I sincerely believe education outside the classroom often leaves the greatest impression. The SEDA-COG Board of Directors and staff are thrilled that Mercedes was chosen for this wonderful opportunity, and we congratulate her. We are excited to see the fruit this experience bears in Mercedes’ pursuits, and we have confidence in her continued contributions to our central Pennsylvania region,” Seigel said.
Sheri Collins, deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), and Gov. Tom Wolf’s representative to the ARC remarked, “Having met several PA students who attended last summer’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory program, I was impressed with their knowledge and enthusiasm. An opportunity like this can be life changing, and I look forward to hearing from Mercedes and our other participants upon their return. Thank you to ARC for making this possible.”
Chemistry is one of Mercedes’ favorite subjects. “I adore chemistry. The explosions are fun and I love learning why things react together and how they react. I find it fascinating that these two little things can make something so big,” she said.
She’ll soon be 16, and she can’t wait to travel. “I’ve lived in McAlisterville my whole life, and I’ve never really left, either… except for Maryland, but I don’t think Maryland really counts – and even that was a field trip, of all things… I applied because I was mainly interested in science and going to Tennessee,” she said.
She’s also excited to meet new people. “I’m looking forward to the experience of being surrounded by people I don’t know and getting to know them,” she said. She’s already befriended three other girls through Facebook who also are attending the ARC/ORNL Summer STEM Programs.
When she graduates, she wants to pursue her creative bent for writing, but wants to pair it with something more “practical, and make a nest of sorts… Maybe something with flowers and botany, I really like flowers, too.”
Snyder’s mother, Rose Weiand, is proud of her – and a little scared. She said her reaction was “shock, pride, and fear. I was very proud that she was accepted, but I am very scared to let my daughter out of my sight for that long and far away,” Weiand said.
But in the end, it was Weiand who gave Snyder the confidence to apply. “She told me I’m the one who gave her the confidence to apply and to go,” Weiand said. “She is very, very excited for this trip. My hardest part will be when I take her to the airport and let her go.”
For more information about the program, visit www.arc.gov/summerSTEM.
SEDA-COG is a regional multi-county development agency, which, under the guidance of a public policy board, provides leadership, expertise and services to communities, businesses, institutions and residents. SEDA-COG seeks to enhance growth opportunities in an environmentally sensitive manner while retaining the region’s predominantly rural character. The organization is both a direct service provider and a link to other resources that can be applied to a wide range of community and economic needs. SEDA-COG also is an advocate for the interests of its communities at the state and federal levels. For more information about SEDA-COG, visit www.seda-cog.org.