Tonya LittleLongtime advocate for STEM in rural NC brings experience, expertise to leadership team Dr. Tonya Little loves to cook, especially if the ingredients are sourced from her home garden in Morganton. She’s getting used to the subtle differences required for sowing seeds in Western versus Eastern North Carolina. By way of Elizabeth City, she joined the team in June 2021 as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at NCSSM-Morganton. On one hand, joining NCSSM is a homecoming for Little. She’s a member of the third graduating class of NCSSM. On the other hand, it marks a departure as she puts down roots more than 300 miles away, clear across the Piedmont. But there’s a mission close to her heart that hasn’t changed one bit — Little is committed to extending advanced STEM learning to students in rural communities across North Carolina, especially for underserved and underrepresented students In order to deepen collaboration in the eastern and western parts of the state, Little is working to build a network of peers and role models so students can benefit not only from camaraderie but also expertise from scientists, engineers, and mathematicians as mentors. For example, Little has connected NCSSM-Durham’s summer programs with Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black university which also happens to be her alma mater. This new connection will extend Summer Bridge into northeastern North Carolina Title I counties, helping to prepare incoming students for success in NCSSM’s rigorous academic climate away from the comforts of home. Dr. Little has also connected NCSSM to the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies to facilitate a project-based learning experience that will engage students in creating personal computing devices to monitor indicators associated with COVID-19. Little is constantly scattering ideas in the hopes of germinating new partnerships. “I have also been in conversations with leaders in Western North Carolina to explore how NCSSM-Morganton can interact with nearby STEM networks.” Western North Carolina will provide unique student engagement opportunities based on the region’s assets and geography, and Little is eager to dive in. Among them, she cites climate science, ecology, forestry, ecotourism, mechatronics, and wilderness emergency medicine, as well as opportunities in the arts. She notes that both regions are seeing job growth in advanced manufacturing and are going to need STEM professionals with competencies in technical, engineering, and management disciplines working in industry where products are designed and developed. In every corner of the state, Little sees fertile ground for NCSSM to educate future problem solvers for North Carolina and beyond. She believes NCSSM has a responsibility as an institution to invest not only in the students who attend the school but also those who lack resources and opportunities. “I strongly believe that the limitations placed upon underserved and underrepresented communities are because of an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap,” says Little. “The best practices for a few are the best practices for all.” Thanks to leadership from educators like Little, and with its expansion to Morganton, NCSSM can continue to serve as a role model for other educational institutions — extending professional development to teachers especially in areas where high-quality STEM training is needed, and extending opportunities for underrepresented students in underserved areas of the state. With the discipline of a devoted gardener, Little is cultivating relationships to develop new opportunities that extend diverse, equitable, and inclusive STEM learning into the farthest reaches of North Carolina. As for limits, in her eyes there are none. “Students should not be shut out of the STEM pipeline because of their ZIP code.”