“I Don’t Put Limits on My Students”: Leonese Nelson Reflects on Two Decades Chairing STEP/CSTEP Conferences

The 2023 Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) and Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) spring conferences were bittersweet for Leonese Nelson. Once again, she worked 18-hour days to present two statewide showcases of student work, timed just a few weeks apart. But this year, she also announced that she is stepping down from her role of chairing and organizing both events.

A group of middle school students in front of a banner
Leonese Nelson (fifth from right) at the 2023 STEP Conference in Albany, NY.

That’s after being at the helm for 21 years of STEP and 12 years of CSTEP conferences (co-chairing with Gladys Palma de Schrynemakers of CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies from 2012 to 2019). That is a good proportion of Syracuse University’s and New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) collaboration as hosts, for 24 and 29 years respectively.

In addition, Nelson served as Treasurer of the Association for Program Administrators of CSTEP and STEP Inc. (APACS) for more than 18 years, until June 2019. At its June 2023 annual conference, APACS recognized Nelson with its Dr. John Staley Award for Outstanding Service.

Nelson’s work on the two conferences and with APACS has been in addition to running the University’s STEP and CSTEP programs, which—like their analogs statewide—prepare underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students to enter college and participate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions. The Syracuse STEP and CSTEP programs are part of the School of Education’s Center for Academic Achievement and Student Development.

“It’s important for me to have events that are special for the school and college students, an opportunity and space just for them.”

With her Tuskegee University bachelor’s degree in hand, Nelson came to Syracuse in 1993 as a political science master’s degree student and a teaching assistant in the Department of African American Studies. After her master’s degree, she pursed a doctorate and first became affiliated with the entry programs as a STEP graduate assistant, in fall 1998.

Leonese NelsonNelson notes that her political science background gave her the organizational and people skills to juggle both conferences. “It’s important for me to have events that are special for the school and college students, an opportunity and space just for them,” explains Nelson. “The students come first—that is what is most important for me, and all my vendors and committee members know that too.”

To back up her point, Nelson quotes Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Adding, “My mother made sure that I learned to give back, for having had the kind of opportunities that she didn’t have.”

To offer a sense of the scale of planning involved, this year’s middle and high school STEP students gathered for their three-day conference in Albany from March 24 to 26, 2023. A couple of weeks later, from April 14 to 16, it was the turn of the college-level students to meet at the Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing, NY. In addition to posters, presentations, and demonstrations, both events featured speakers and plenty of extracurricular activities, such as dance, talent shows, and games. Plus, there’s a college fair for the STEP students and a graduate fair for CSTEP. And that’s not all—the organizers throw a banquet dinners for both groups too.

“My name is a placeholder. Vendors have to send packages to someone,” says Nelson humbly, noting that a team across the University helps her organize, including many in the Division of Business, Finance, and Administrative Services.

Nelson says she wanted her final conferences to be extra special. In 2020, the STEP conference was just days away when New York State shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The health emergency also cancelled the 2021 conferences, but STEP convened online in 2022 with 500 attendees. “We needed to come back together in 2023—and go above and beyond. I did everything I could because we needed to start a new normal.”

Now that she has stepped down from her statewide responsibilities, Nelson says she will spend more time on the Syracuse STEP and CSTEP programs—including planning college tours in New York and further afield for the middle and high school students—and she will be on hand to help those planning the statewide conferences in her stead.

What favorite memories does Nelson have? Well, she has organized the conferences long enough to have fond recollections of students excitedly calling their parents using pay phones. Now it’s selfies and posting to Instagram. She also mentions the dress-up banquet held for the STEP students, where the hotel convention hall goes from “drab to fab.” “I once heard a student say, ‘Is this all for me?’ ‘Why would it not be for you?’ I replied.”

Sometimes, young STEP students go very far, and Nelson has been there to see these journeys take flight. One such student was “The Professor,” a middle schooler who earned his nickname by being so studious and inquisitive. He went on to take engineering degree at MIT. “I don’t put limits on my students,” observes Nelson. “I say to them, don’t compare yourself to others. Your paths won’t always be the same.”