Why McNair Matters
Named for Ronald E. McNair, a physicist and NASA astronaut who died in 1986 during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the federally funded program promotes diversity in academe and is one of eight TRIO programs. Since 1989, the U.S. Department of Education has funded McNair programs through competitive grants, and this year, Beloit is one of 151 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico to receive funding.
At its core, McNair’s mission is to help academically sound, first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority students enroll in doctoral programs. Beloit aspires to have students complete a Ph.D. program within 10 years of graduating. Currently, 13 alumni, or 12 percent of all of Beloit’s McNair Scholars to date, have completed a doctorate in the decade since graduating, and 81 have received master’s degrees. Twenty of Beloit’s McNair Scholars are currently enrolled in Ph.D. programs and will likely receive their degrees in the next few years.
Initially, the program took place only over the summer between students’ junior and senior year. Scholars worked one-on-one with Beloit faculty, conducting research on campus, presenting their research at professional conferences, and compiling a list of graduate programs to apply to in the fall.
A longstanding McNair Scholars program is rare at a college like Beloit, which focuses primarily on the undergraduate experience. More often, McNair programs are located at universities with graduate programs.
McNair funding requires that at least two-thirds of the participants be low-income and first-generation students. Cohorts are kept small, with only seven to nine students in each. Working closely with a faculty mentor and networking with their peers, Beloit’s participating students learn to become scholars in the time it takes to earn a baccalaureate degree.
Building a family
At its inception, Beloit’s program was small and an extension of another TRIO program, Student Support Services (SSS), now known as the Student Excellence and Leadership Program.
DeVon Wilson’90, the program’s first coordinator and eventual director, said that SSS created a family atmosphere that provided career services and financial support, and worked to develop students academically and socially. Early on, it was recognized that the base of students to enroll as McNair Scholars would likely come from SSS.
“We started with a family framework, a community framework. We understood that each of these students is on an individual path, but they’ll never be alone,” says Wilson.
Wilson was tapped to run McNair once federal funding came to Beloit in 1996. He had been working in Beloit’s Admissions Office at the time and didn’t have a background in research, something he felt actually gave him an advantage.
“One of the advantages for me was that I wasn’t quite shaped by undergraduate research, and I realized that a program like McNair is not just about a pipeline to the professorate, or about the disciplines that these students are studying. It’s about identity development, it’s about leadership development, and it’s about creating space for new voices to enter the dialogue.”
Wilson says the program embraces a “talent-development” framework, which shows students that “even though there’s no example of someone doing ‘that’ in your personal world, you can be ‘that.’”
Learning how to conduct research, present at academic conferences, and apply to graduate school may have been new to student scholars enrolled in McNair, but teaching in the program was also an adjustment for faculty. At times, Wilson says faculty would get lost in the weeds of their discipline and were unable to see the larger goals of the program.
“When you start talking about doing graduate research, people get so focused that they forget that you’re doing identity development and leadership development,” says Wilson. “The work we’re doing is for sustainability,” he adds. “[Students] can know all the information they need to know, but we have to build their capacity as students because in many spaces they’re going to be the only person of color … we have to build their confidence.” This continues to be a key principle of the program.
When McNair alumna Atiera Coleman, who now directs Beloit’s program, graduated from Beloit in 2010, she always thought she’d return, perhaps as the director of the McNair program, though that seemed like a far-fetched idea back then.
Coleman credits the program for helping her gain confidence in herself and pushing her to pursue her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which, by the time this is published, she will have defended.
“Without McNair, I wouldn’t have known much about graduate school or even had the confidence to apply,” says Coleman. “When you come from backgrounds where your parents already have those degrees, they set you up to know what to expect once you get there.
You’re a part of those circles your whole life, and people with master’s and Ph.D.s
are humanized. When you’re not, it seems like a reach and not something you can do.”
In 2004, with the second McNair grant cycle, Wilson wanted to give students more exposure and decided a two-tier summer system would be the most beneficial. This meant that students in the program would apply as a second-semester sophomore, leaving one summer for research at Beloit, and an additional summer of research between their junior and senior year at another institution, an element that is unique to Beloit’s program.
“It’s one thing for your home faculty to say ‘you’re good.’ It’s another thing to have faculty at UCLA say ‘you got it.’ That’s what makes you Teflon,” says Wilson.
For Janelle Perez’14, a second summer of research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made all the difference in her career. A Latina student and daughter of immigrant parents, Perez says she often felt unsupported in her academic department during her time at Beloit.
“ … I would bring up the things I learned about in a class on immigration—bilingual education, inequalities that happen with Latino students … a lot of times my ideas were shut down,” says Perez.
During her second summer in the McNair program, she met the person who is now her advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“That summer was the most impactful. My advisor saw the passion I had and told me I was capable of going to graduate school,” says Perez.
Nicole Truesdell’03, also a former McNair Scholar at Beloit, was hired to lead the college’s program in 2013. She saw the need for facilitating more understanding among faculty teaching in the program and says that when she was a student scholar, she also sometimes found the college difficult to navigate. However, Truesdell was always confident about wanting to attend graduate school. She just didn’t understand how to go about getting there. McNair focused her interests. “I wasn’t that grounded in it yet, and McNair flushed that out for me,” she says.
Truesdell returned to Beloit after earning her Ph.D. in anthropology from Michigan State University. She took the reins of a successful McNair program that had expanded on its base to include two McNair-based courses for students—a senior seminar course, and a course that focuses on designing research. These courses help students through the process of conducting research from beginning to end and applying to at least six graduate school programs, including gathering a list of degree programs where they will apply, working on their curriculum vitae, and acquiring letters of recommendation.
Still, Truesdell wanted to elevate the prestige of the program, which she felt had often been downplayed because of the population it served. A common myth was that participating students weren’t academically sound and that the program existed to help remedial students. “I felt as if there was no development with faculty around how they have to think about who they’re working with and how identities matter,” says Truesdell. “I found there wasn’t a true initial understanding of that relationship.”
Truesdell established a faculty series, taught by the director, which helps faculty develop their understanding of what it means to be a mentor to students who sometimes have different backgrounds from their own. It also required faculty to take a more prominent role in the program. And, Truesdell wanted faculty to understand that McNair students were already academically successful and that they were being accepted into the top graduate programs in the country with full funding.
“I wanted to make it very clear that the students in this program were academically sound, academically engaged, and academically more sophisticated than the majority students. They just needed to work on developing how to successfully navigate research in order to be successful in grad school.”
In 2015, the McNair program moved from Beloit’s Academic Affairs Office to the college’s newly established Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness (OADI), which Truesdell now directs. The new office strives to eliminate structural barriers for underrepresented and underserved student populations by encouraging more equity at the college and oversees five programs, including McNair.
That same year, before she became senior director of the OADI, Truesdell started the McNair Exploratory Program, which matches first-year, McNair-eligible students in their second semester with academic advisors who hold advanced degrees. The idea is to expose students who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree to a mentor and to some of their career options.
Lydia Abraham’18 was in the first cohort of the exploratory program. She comes from the small town of Coal City, Ill., a place where college attainment is low and expectations for women are even lower. “My parents didn’t go to college. No one really goes to college,” she explains.
Initially, Abraham was content with just attaining a bachelor’s degree from Beloit, but after a suggestion from a friend, she became interested in McNair, despite not really understanding what a Ph.D. program involved. McNair presented her with an opportunity to explore, but it also offered a support system. At the time this article was written, she and her fellow cohorts were already in the thick of conducting their summer research. Abraham’s research focuses on self-esteem and leadership in homeless teen girls in Wisconsin.
“Through McNair, I gained a lot of people who now believe in me,” says Abraham. “I get compliments from other members of the program and think, ‘Maybe I can do this, maybe I know what I’m talking about.’”
One of Abraham’s cohorts, Desireé Amboree’18, is conducting research this summer on the school-to-prison pipeline and its impact on black and Latino boys. She says she never thought graduate school was a possibility for her. Even thoughts of attending college were a stretch.
“Coming here, I realize that people who come from my background, people that look like me, people that have my skin color, can move forward and be successful.”
Whitney Helm is on the editorial staff of Beloit College Magazine.