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  1. Underproduction, low retention, and lack of diversity in STEM disciplines, especially engineering, are significant challenges nationally, but are particularly acute in regions, both urban and rural, where educational access is limited. Leveraging our institutional location at a public urban research university in a city marked by its connection to its rural surroundings, we seek to address these challenges by implementing the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) model at our university with the support of an NSF IUSE grant. The VIP model is based on active learning and enables tiered mentoring from students at all academic years, thereby providing the opportunity of role modeling from upper-level undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty. In addition, programs based on the VIP model are accessible to all students (not just high performing students) and provide a meaningful networking environment. We use our implementation of the VIP model to foster STEM identity growth and a sense of belonging, while increasing and celebrating diversity in engineering and other STEM disciplines. Our VIP program leverages best practices from the well-established VIP model and adapts it to address unique aspects of our university’s community and interests. Specifically, the program includes freshmen and will also serve as a recruitment tool for local community college students. It employs a tiered mentoring approach and activities that prepare students for research and foster networking. The long-term goal of the VIP experience is to create a research culture and community in engineering and eventually across STEM disciplines that is inclusive and supportive of students from diverse backgrounds. An additional focus is to showcase the value of diversity in research and innovation through the program. Both the research culture and increased acknowledgement of the value of diversity are designed to enhance students’ STEM identity, which is important for retention in the major and career. The purpose of this paper is to report on the planning and launch of our VIP program in Fall 2022, focusing on the PIs’ experiences implementing the program and on our first cohort’s (N = 12; 7 women; 4 Black/African American; 2 Hispanic) experiences participating in the program during their first semester. Specifically, this paper will describe the challenges and opportunities of implementing the VIP program and how the VIP model has been adapted to align with unique aspects of our institution and student body. We will also report preliminary analyses of student journal data collected from the first cohort throughout the Fall semester, where students described their initial expectations/hopes and concerns for the semester; their activities and emotional responses during the semester; and finally, their reflections on their experiences, positive or negative, throughout the semester. The paper will conclude by offering lessons learned from the first year of this project as well as directions for moving forward. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 25, 2024