New Outreach Director Looks to Bridge Divides

Kristian Breton wants to forge deeper connections between Columbia Engineering, the New York City community, and the STEM scene at large

Nov 03 2021 | Photo Credit: Jorg Meyer
Kristian Breton, director of outreach programs

Kristian Breton, director of outreach programs

Kristian Breton was brought on as Columbia Engineering’s new outreach director this past July. A New Yorker of 20 years, Breton has a broad range of experience managing education programs. His early career in education included working with students in East Harlem, matching educational mentors and mentees. Later, he moved on to run similar programs for The New York Academy of Sciences and then managed summer school operations for the School of The New York Times.

As the new head of outreach, Breton’s role is to provide access to academic and professional STEM opportunities for those traditionally underrepresented communities to encourage more students to pursue higher education in maths and sciences.

We talked with Breton about how his own background has informed his vision, what’s next for Columbia Engineering Outreach, and what success looks like.

To me, success is when people come together to collaborate and produce a program or experience that benefits not just the people directly involved, but also others.

Kristian Breton
Director of Outreach Programs

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born in Brazil, raised in Arkansas, and moved to NYC for graduate school in August of 2001. So I’ve in been in NYC for 20 years.

During graduate school, a professor recommended that I should “pick a topic you’re interested in, and work on that in your community.” My dad was my middle school principal, so you can say I’ve always had an appreciation for education. I was living in East Harlem at the time, so I started working at an after-school program around the corner from my apartment. I learned so much from the high school students in the program and gained a deeper appreciation for “meeting students where they’re at.”

Since then, I’ve worked for a variety of educational programs ranging in public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The most rewarding position was working on a National Science Foundation grant to expand mentoring programs with SUNY and dozens of middle schools across six different campuses. When I saw the outreach director position posted, I was excited to apply and return to this particular kind of educational work.

What’s your vision for outreach initiatives at Columbia Engineering?

One of my first responsibilities upon coming on board was to meet with deans, faculty, and staff involved with community engagement. I knew that the information on our website needed to be updated to align with the expectations set from these meetings. Through this process I learned a great deal and synthesized a new vision for the Outreach Office with the guidance of my outreach colleagues, Cassandra Barrett and Analiese Barnes-Classen. We also sought feedback from Shavonna Hinton, the assistant dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to align with the progress Columbia Engineering is making to be a more inclusive institution.

I am proud to say the vision for the Outreach Office is exciting and will guide our work going forward. Our overarching goal is to bridge the divide between the community, Columbia Engineering, and the STEM industry at large. We envision a world where all students can see a place for themselves in STEM, and that’s whether as researcher, professor, or engineers. We believe that every student should have access to the School’s enriching learning experiences that help them achieve their goals.

To accomplish this, my office supports Columbia students and faculty in connecting directly with the community through K-12 programs. Through that program and other existing and emerging initiatives, we wish to increase access to STEM education at all levels. In addition to our community outreach programs, we’re assisting faculty and researchers with strengthening the broader impact of their work through the support of NSF and other private partners.

We also foster relationships with colleges and universities across the country to provide students from historically underrepresented backgrounds with research and mentorship opportunities, which supplements their education and enhances their exposure to STEM career pathways.

What does success look like to you?

To me, success is when people come together to collaborate and produce a program or experience that benefits not just the people directly involved, but also others. I particularly find it rewarding when there is a challenge that is multifaceted and requires a high degree of coordination. On an individual level, I love seeing young people learn from experiences. Much of my experience has been in coordinating mentor programs, and one lesson I’ve learned is that mentoring is successful when the mentee and mentor are learning together. The mentee might be focused on a school assignment, but the mentor is learning about empathy, being a better communicator, and sharing life lessons.

What are some aspects you think often get overlooked in conversations around DEI?

I grew up in a small town that was homogenous in almost every way. I was lucky and privileged to have grandparents in San Francisco who I would visit during summers. So I knew from an early age how great it can be to experience a wide variety of cultures on a daily basis, but many people I grew up with never had the opportunity to travel beyond Arkansas.

Once I moved to NYC, I was surprised to meet lots of people, especially youth, who had never traveled outside the borough, or even the neighborhood they were born in. So part of what I want to do is create opportunities in outreach for people to come to Columbia who haven’t been here. That may be someone from the middle of the country, but it could also be someone from deep in Brooklyn.

For Columbians who are interested in getting involved with outreach activities, what’s the best way to connect with you?

I am happy to start the conversation with anyone in the Columbia community who is interested in outreach. My email is [email protected], and my number is 646-745-8420.

For those looking for opportunities to speak with K-12 students and lead a lesson of their choosing, we are actively recruiting for Engineering Speaks. To submit a proposal, visit this link and we’ll work to match volunteers with schools starting in January.