Inside Aera
Aera in the Community Feb 18, 2020

Aera partners with West Hills Community College to open a new STEM lab and study center

More space and resources will help support students as they prepare for science-related careers

West Hills Community College students gather in the new Aera-funded MESA lab and study lounge at its Jan. 23 dedication. At center (in the maroon sweater) is Dr. Kenneth Henry, who helped initiate the project. At far left is Aera President and CEO Christina Sistrunk.

Students in the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) program at West Hills Community College (WHCC) in Coalinga know about tight quarters and limited resources. 

They used to crowd into a small room on campus when they needed a place to study, discuss a team project with classmates or simply network. They made do with one computer, a single table and borrowed chairs.

The small hub clearly lacked the space and tools needed to serve the 120 students involved in the MESA program at this west Fresno County college.

Today, however, those MESA students have a new lab and study lounge plus resources that were lacking before, thanks to a $50,000 donation from Aera Energy.

“That Aera was so willing to contribute to help our students is incredible,” said Dr. Kenneth Henry, the college’s former MESA director who’s now a chemistry and biology instructor on the WHCC campus. “It shows Aera cares about the community and is willing to support a learning environment that will open doors to finishing programs and achieving career success.”

Aera’s contribution helped provide 19 computers, five worktables, chairs and a snack bar. The funds also pay for four tutors to assist MESA students. In addition, Aera donated to the President’s Scholar’s Fund to help with the cost of books and tuition for MESA students.

The new center, which opened in January, includes dedicated space for MESA Director Zach Soto, giving students direct access on a regular basis. The lab is open every day, sometimes until 9 p.m., to accommodate student’s schedules.

MESA and tomorrow’s workforce

Aera president and CEO Christina Sistrunk meets with MESA Director Zach Soto outside the new study center. Aera’s Coalinga operations make it a major employer in the area.

“West Hills MESA is poised to develop a new generation of leaders in science, technology, engineering and math within Fresno County,” said Aera President and CEO Christina Sistrunk at the center’s Jan. 23 dedication ceremony. “This program fuels diversity by supporting historically underrepresented groups to achieve their potential and access challenging and rewarding careers via STEM degrees.”

The MESA program helps disadvantaged students enter the science and engineering field by creating an educational foundation from middle school through college. It aims to increase the number of community college students who successfully transfer to a four-year university to continue their education in STEM majors.

Having a place of their own to study is particularly important for WHCC’s MESA students. Many come from large families or have children of their own. Homes are filled with distractions. 

“WHCC serves a student population that’s 76% Hispanic,” Henry said. “They’re often the first in their families to attend college, and many lack the tools or support they need.”

To boost opportunities for the economically challenged Coalinga community, WHCC has been making a big push to prepare students for STEM-related careers.

“The partnership with Aera Energy is powerful for West Hills,” said Dr. Stuart Van Horn,  chancellor of the WHCC District. “Their investment to support our increasing commitment to providing math, science, engineering and related programs is elevating the status of our college and our STEM-related programs in Coalinga.”

DID YOU KNOW? Aera Energy is a three-time recipient of the Forbes America’s Midsize Employer List, placing ninth in the 2022 ranking and securing its spot in the top ten midsize companies to work for in the United States.

Aera Energy