This past fall, Mercer Lake witnessed a new start in rowing for a different group of young people. Novices to the sport are nothing novel, but this particular cohort of middle-schoolers had lacked traditional access to rowing until now. Arriving from Trenton in vans that had been arranged by Princeton University, the students had come to Mercer thanks to the STEM-to-Stern program and a partnership between Princeton, Trenton's public schools and youth programs, and the Princeton National Rowing Association.
STEM-to-Stern, started by Will Bott at the Milwaukee Rowing Club, encourages participation by underserved youth by providing not just an introduction to rowing, but also a range of specific support in eight areas that STEM-to-Stern sees as rowing's barriers to access. In addition to the actual rowing and middle schools to partner with, those eight components also include transportation, swimming lessons, volunteers, after-school snacks, and fundraising, along with the program's signature element: a STEM focused academic component that helps attract and retain middle schoolers.
For Ornella Ebongue, a senior on the Princeton University open women's team who volunteers organizing and coaching each week, a program like Stem-To-Stern that focuses on middle schoolers can be the start to providing greater access.
"Representation in every sport is important, but especially in this sport, since it's largely underrepresented," she said. "That starts at the middle school level: widening the pipeline of talent through the middle school level all the way to the Olympic level."
"STEM-to-Stern is an amazing organization that provides a formula to run a successful program by addressing the challenges and providing strategies to help work through some of the barriers to access," says Princeton women's Head Coach Lori Dauphiny said. "We are lucky to have the Princeton National Rowing Association right next door. Kris Grudt and Arlynn Baer are awesome to work with, eager to work together and provide a great environment for training both on and off the water."
This partnering between a collegiate program and a community rowing club has been central to the success of STEM-to-Stern programs. A partnership with the Milwaukee School of Engineering provided the first STEM-to-Stern effort with access to vans for transportation and collegiate athletes who could serve as coaches, STEM tutors and, perhaps most crucially, role models to the young people getting involved.
The University of Wisconsin's teams play a similar role in the programs at the Mendota and Camp Randall Rowing Clubs, and it was the energy and enthusiasm of the Princeton student-athletes and coaches which helped bring the program to life here at Mercer.
Student athletes from all four Princeton University programs participated.
"Our team of athletes organizes the program, creates lesson plans, and provides the volunteers, enthusiasm and fun. The university provides background checks, engineering resources and guidance, and support for outreach," Dauphiny said, detailing what Princeton brings to the equation.
"The schools and organizations we work with in Trenton help find the students and families interested in participating. The relationship with Bruce Boyd, who runs a program for youth [called Building Our Youth's Development], and Keoke Wooten- Johnson, the Principal at Village Charter in Trenton are critical. It definitely takes a village."
That village coming together created the opportunity for Princeton athletes Ornella Ebongue and Nate Phelps to get involved directly with the kids this fall.
Ebongue, a former track athlete who only started rowing herself when she came to Princeton and could access the sport there, was involved both as a coach and with helping to pick the students up in Trenton to bring them to the lake.
"It was really exciting hearing about the different kids' backgrounds on the bus on the way to the boathouse, simply because a lot of them didn't even know rowing existed or didn't know if it was accessible to them because of the hassles that comes with transportation to a boathouse, payment of club fees, and all of that. So a lot of them were so excited to have this opportunity, and many of them were so excited just to get on the water."
Phelps, a junior on Princeton's heavyweight men's squad, recalled how the desire to get involved originated amongst his teammates in the summer of 2020.
"When a lot of the BLM protests were happening, I think our team did a very good job of discussing our sport's role and a need for diversity," Phelps said. "Being able to start very young, with non-traditional, non-rowing background students was a very exciting prospect for me." Hearing that other schools like University of Wisconsin, Madison, had gotten involved, made Phelps, "very excited about the prospect of helping start up our own STEM-to-Stern."
Getting the kids to Mercer was no small undertaking: finding partner schools, coordinating with the teachers and families, and then making sure all the transport was taken care of had to precede any time the kids could spend at the boathouse. That required a lot of hard work by the Princeton coaching staff even before the athletes like Ebongue and Phelps could get involved. Dauphiny led the coordination of that transportation piece, and shared some lessons learned from the fall.
"Transportation is necessary and critical for success, especially in our area where the schools and the boathouse are spread out," Dauphiny said. "We learned a few obvious lessons right off the start; multiple pick up locations equals greater challenges, longer rides in a van, the need for additional vans, more variables involved with school dismissal times, and greater cost. It would be ideal to have one central pickup location and one drop off location, but we aren't there yet. We have six different schools involved in the program, which is awesome, a lot of fun, and rewarding, but but it would be easier if it were all in one place."
Arlynn Baer, who worked on this fall's program from the PNRA side, added that the lessons learned included acknowledging where the STEM-to-Stern athletes came from and their age.
"Every student and age group will have different needs and abilities," she said. "Being able to recognize that early on is key to creating strong relationships with the students you want to work with. Recognizing your own bias and how your lived experiences affect your coaching is essential to the growth of your coaching abilities and your team. You have to be patient and first work on building trust with students, families, and community leaders, it will be the building blocks for a successful future."
What brought these building blocks together, according to Dauphiny, was the efforts of all the organizations involved, including the PNRA: "Partnerships are key! It would be difficult if it were not for the partnerships with many. It is the reason we can do this."
Greg Hughes, Princeton's Heavyweight Men's Coach, discovered it was really the relationships that formed amongst the partners and with the kids that counted, once these logistics had been planned out. Hughes also serves as the Board President for the national STEM-to-Stern program and its efforts to start and support similar programs around the country.
"The biggest thing that I learned through our first season of running the program was the importance of relationships," he said. "As we set up our program, we placed a lot of focus on securing equipment and defining the plan for how we wanted to structure the sessions. I thought that having this in place and sharing it with folks would make it easier to excite students and their families to take part in the program."
"I learned that these things were important, took a lot of work, and needed to be in place, but they weren't what mattered most to the kids, their families and their teachers. What mattered most was the time spent talking and getting to know each other. The program by itself is just a program. Sure, we had some nice equipment and facilities to share but it was the people involved who brought the connection and humanity that made the program come to life."
"Getting to know the kids, families and teachers was the best part for me," Hughes said.
The program that resulted from all these relationships brought the STEM-to-Stern athletes to Mercer two afternoons a week, where Princeton student-athletes served as the volunteer coaching staff after doing their own training sessions in the morning. Each Tuesday featured an hour of rowing, and then a one hour STEM activity, while on Thursdays the hour of rowing was followed by an hour of swimming.
In those rowing sessions, Phelps was struck by how quickly the kids got into the spirit of the sport and competition, right from the very first day, when the "rowing" just consisted of some erging and a few short relays.
"Eli Kalfaian, who's a senior here at Princeton, was on the erg next to one of our athletes, who's like 12 or 13. He had one air pod in listening to music, and he is just talking so much smack on the erg to Eli. It was really great to see the athletes get into it very early in the program."
Watch the video that Hughes took of their good-natured trash talking here:
Interacting one-on-one with rowers became a way to welcome the STEM-to-Stern athletes to the sport, and to make them feel welcomed.
"A big point of having the program at Caspersen with PNRA Mercer was to have them around high school athletes and get them an exposure to kids almost their age, to let them see the pipeline," noted Phelps.
During one of the STEM sessions, Phelps recalled how his group of athletes went over and just started cheering on some of the athletes from one of the many high school teams that train at Casperson.
"The kids were doing an erg, and our athletes just started cheering them on. It was just really wholesome to see that they caught on to the spirit of the sport."
Seeing the middle-schoolers take that energy into actual boats later in the process stood out for Hughes: "The moment that had the biggest impact on me was looking at the kids' faces the first day we put them into an eight. They loved the speed and feel of those strokes so much, and they all had huge smiles on their faces. It's what we all love about rowing and it was so cool to see the kids experience that and love it too."
One of those first times in the eight, Ebongue and three teammates joined four Stem-to-Stern athletes. "Doing the drills with them was really exciting, as a coach," she said. "One of our students was so excited to be the leader of the pack, at stroke. He was saying, 'Hey, guys follow me!' It was great to see his joy for the sport."
In fact, as that practice finished, her stroke seat, hoping the row would not end, wanted to stay out on the water. He kept asking Ebongue, "Is there a way that I can go rowing by myself?"
That eagerness to keep going in the sport is what energizes Ebongue and has her looking forward to the next phase of the program.
"I'm excited to expose them to the collegiate level," Ebongue says of the opportunity to welcome them to Princeton's boathouse when the program resumes in February, so they can use the tanks. It will be a chance, she believes, "to show them that this is somewhere you can land because there are people of color in the boathouse, at the collegiate level, and show them that there are many ways to advance in the sport."
For Ebongue, the involvement of the Princeton teams in STEM-to-Stern is a "great step in the right direction."
"I'm excited that Princeton is the one making that step, because we're kind of signaling to other programs that it's something that's accessible. I also think it is something that will evolve in the future, considering that we're not the only campus that's close to cities like Trenton."
"We're part of the movement to propel this change forward, and I think that's really exciting."
Her coach, Dauphiny, who noted that "you learn a lot of cool things about people while driving around in vans together," found that she learned how, "sometimes even the smallest things can have an impact; weekly conversations, snacks after school, sharing the passion for the sport and learning. There is not equal access or opportunity in rowing, and we can start working on that in our own community."
"Being on the water and having good strokes is one of the best feelings that you can get", said Ebongue. "Being able to share my love and appreciation for the sport with these kids who didn't think that rowing was something that they could have the opportunity to do or even have access to was really great."