Opening Doors I Never Thought Were Possible Through the McNair Scholars Program

“Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them.”

— Ronald Erwin McNair

Oftentimes, students wonder what they can do to make themselves stand out. There seems to be an invisible checklist that consists of an impressive academic status, leadership experience, and community service interactions—but where’s research? Although tons of research topics are available in the CSD discipline, there’s a misconception that research is meant only for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. This is what I thought before actually completing my own research project through the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program (known as the “McNair Scholars Program”).

What’s the McNair Scholars Program?

The McNair Scholars Program is one of eight federal TRIO programs, which are U.S. Department of Education student services programs “targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.” This program is dedicated to the late Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist. The purpose of this program is to prepare undergraduate students for the pursuit of doctoral studies by  engaging in research, professional development, and personal development.

The Application Process

Before starting at my undergraduate institution, I didn’t know about this program and what it stood for. My academic advisor introduced me to the opportunity and nominated me early in my junior year. He encouraged me to apply and see where it could take me. I was quite hesitant at first because I didn’t know what “research” was—and I certainly didn’t see myself obtaining a Ph.D. It took me a while to just go for it, but I did.

There are two ways to qualify for this program: You must either

  1. be in a low socioeconomic income bracket and first-generation student or,
  2. be from groups that are underrepresented in graduate education—such as Black or African American; Hispanic or Latino (some people prefer to use the term “Latinx”); Alaskan Native; Native/Indigenous; or Pacific Islander.

As a Black student, I felt empowered that this type of program exists—a program that wants to diversify graduate education—and that fact gave me even more motivation to apply.

The application process consisted of

  • responding to a questionnaire,
  • attaching a personal statement,
  • writing a research interest statement,
  • providing a resume, and
  • submitting two letters of recommendation.

While I was determining my research interest and writing the accompanying statement, I found it to be a challenging time. Applying for this program was something that I had never envisioned myself doing. With the help of my faculty mentor, I selected a compelling topic to explore and submitted the application packet. A few weeks later, I was selected as a finalist and participated in the interview round, where McNair Scholars Program staff interviewed me. I was very excited and nervous about the interview. I wanted to make sure that I accurately described my interest in the program and every aspect of myself and my academic journey that I believed would qualify me for it. Weeks later, I received an acceptance letter. I was ecstatic and rejoiced in that happy moment!

My Experience as a McNair Scholar

During the next semester (spring), I began working on my research project, titled “Perceptions of African American English: Reducing the Potential for Misdiagnosis.” I had to complete a project proposal with a literature review, which is a detailed paper chronicling all previous researchers’ work on this topic. This took a lot of time and reading, but it’s very important to understand what others had done prior to determining the direction of my own research.

After the semester ended and the program administrators approved my proposal, my fellow scholars and I entered the Summer Research Institute (SRI), which lasted 8 weeks. During this time, the scholars also took two seminars:

  1. Writing Seminar: Helped us develop our skills in the areas of professional writing and disciplinary research writing.
  2. Academic Professionalism Seminar: Prepared us for graduate-level education by allowing us to refine our resumes, write our personal statements, and craft professionally worded emails requesting letters of recommendation.

In addition to attending the seminars, we also worked on completing our research projects. This consisted of a written paper summarizing the entire project—including the following sections: introduction, literature review, research methods, data analysis, results, conclusion, and references.

At the end of the summer, the scholars presented their research at the McNair Symposium. But summer’s end didn’t signify the end of my involvement with the McNair Scholars Program—far from it! I stay in contact with the staff and my faculty mentor, and throughout my senior year, they provided much support by assisting me with my graduate school applications.

Benefits of the McNair Scholars Program

The McNair Scholars Program offers so many benefits to students:

  • research experience
  • mentorship
  • graduate school preparation
  • graduate school application fee waivers
  • presentation experience
  • professional writing proficiency

Tips for Undergraduate Students Interested in the McNair Scholars Program

If you have the opportunity to be a part of this (or any other) esteemed program, please consider applying and keep these tips in mind . . .

  1. Be open-minded to new and unfamiliar opportunities: You never know where one interesting opportunity may take you.
  2. Be curious: This is your free space—one in which you can explore anything that piques your interest.
  3. Be ready to learn: The McNair Scholars Program offers so many opportunities for academic, personal, and career growth.

I’m the first CSD student at my institution to be inducted into the program, but I won’t be the last. I know this is just the beginning. I’m proud that I took this big leap in my academic journey in order to open many future doors for other CSD students. Knowing that we as CSD students have so much to learn about our field, I want fellow and future students to tune into—and turn on—their curiosity and begin to explore! It’s important to me to continue the legacy of other McNair Scholars Program participants and to make CSD students aware of the many opportunities that the program offers them.

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