Feb. 6, 2020
CWU McNair Scholars Program Gives Students Tools, Support They Need for Success
Some college students begin their higher education journeys with a clear picture of what they want to achieve, fully aware of the resources and support networks available to them when the time comes to apply to graduate school.
Others have no idea what that application process looks like, perhaps not even realizing that they could have an opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies. Statistically speaking, most students who fall into the second camp come from low-income families with limited exposure to higher education.
That’s where the McNair Scholars Program at Central Washington University steps in.
For most of the past 28 years, a dedicated team of CWU staff and faculty has been recruiting students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to pursue future opportunities in academia. Many of them are first-generation college students, but that isn’t a requirement for acceptance.
Through the federally funded Trio program, juniors and seniors who are approved receive paid research training, network connections, institutional support, and character development skills as they prepare to advance beyond their undergraduate studies.
The success of the McNair Scholars Program at CWU since 1992 is difficult to measure, but based on the reviews from current and former participants, their experiences have been life-altering.
“Without McNair, I wouldn’t even be thinking about graduate school,” said Jasmin Washington, a senior public health major who also serves as ASCWU president. “This program has shown me how far I can go with my education, and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if I hadn’t become involved. Honestly, McNair has been the best thing about my college career so far.”
“It’s such an amazing program, and I’m so grateful that I was given the opportunity,” added Andre Dickerson, a CWU biology graduate who went on to earn two master’s degrees before returning to Ellensburg to become the director of Kittitas Valley Healthcare Hospice.
Dickerson has been serving as the director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) for the past three years, and he is planning to pursue a doctoral degree in higher education leadership. He said McNair played an integral role in helping him realize his potential.
“I feel very blessed because the connections I made through the program really empowered me,” he said. “If I hadn’t found out about McNair, I have no idea what my career trajectory would have been.”
About the CWU program
The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, as it is formally known, is named after the late NASA astronaut and is funded by Congress through five-year grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.
One of three Trio programs offered at CWU, the McNair Scholars chapter was among the first in Washington state to provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with opportunities for academic growth and development beyond their undergraduate education. Today, there are more than 180 institutions nationwide that create similar opportunities for undergrads looking to pursue graduate degrees.
Nearly three decades since its inception, the CWU program has kickstarted the careers of hundreds of graduates and has become a great source of pride for the university.
“McNair has been one of the most impactful academic programs I’ve ever been a part of,” said Alex Harrington, a senior political science major who serves as the student representative on the CWU Board of Trustees.
“I didn’t even know I could do undergrad research, but the staff and my mentor guided me through the whole process. Now, I’m looking forward to continuing my research and pursuing a Ph.D. None of that would have been possible without all the support I have gotten through McNair.”
Harrington, who is researching the connection between the Israeli Black Panther Party and the original Black Panther Party, said he didn’t come to CWU with the intention of pursuing a graduate degree. But once he learned more about the benefits of the McNair Scholars Program, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“Anyone who is even thinking about applying, my advice would be to go for it,” he said. “Every aspect of the program has been great, and there’s so much support available. Everyone I have worked with has been so positive, but you also receive constructive criticism that is extremely helpful. I don’t know where else I would have gotten that experience if I didn’t apply.”
Alejandra Lopez Rocha, a 2019 CWU graduate who is now enrolled in the Law and Justice master’s degree program, said the skills she developed and the mentoring she received as a McNair scholar gave her the confidence she will need to build a successful career.
“I enjoyed everything about the program, but what benefited me most was that it forced me to go outside my comfort zone,” she said. “I’m not a big fan of public speaking, but one of the requirements for my research was to speak at a variety of conferences. Knowing my advisers were there to help me anytime I needed them directed me toward the steps I had to take to prepare for the future.”
Developing young professionals
CWU McNair Scholars program director Pamela Nevar and her staff of three work out of a first-floor suite in the Language and Literature (L&L) building, offering assistance and support to 27 students per academic year. Upon being selected, the scholars connect with on-campus mentors in their major and work with them to advance their proposed research projects.
Program participants attend a weekly McNair scholars class, where they learn about the graduate school application process, refine their research, and develop relationships with campus experts and others in their fields of study. They’re also afforded plenty of one-on-one time with their mentors, advisers, and the McNair staff.
“We serve as a support system and give these students guidance that they may not otherwise receive,” said Nevar, who succeeded CWU biology professor Lucinda Carnell in September 2018. “As first-generation college students, many of them don’t have access to that kind of guidance from their own families, so we try to provide a kind of ‘home away from home’ so they can continue to grow, both personally and academically.”
The summer after their junior year, the scholars earn a $4,200 stipend — $1,400 of which goes toward room and board — to pursue their original research under faculty mentorship. Among the current crop of McNair scholars, the research projects focus on everything from political science and musical performance, to electrical engineering and organic chemistry.
Participants present their findings at SOURCE and at academic conferences during their senior year, and many see their work published in academic peer-reviewed journals. McNair Scholars Program graduates from CWU currently are pursuing graduate degrees at Brown University, Cornell University, University of Washington, Washington State University, the University of Oregon, Vanderbilt University, among others.
An added benefit is that the students often parlay their experiences into professional opportunities at higher education institutions, with some — like Dickerson and English instructor Xavier Cavazos — returning to work at their alma mater.
Nevar said these CWU alumni embody the purpose of the McNair Program, which is to diversify the professoriate. What’s more, everyone who gets involved with the McNair Program seems to emerge with a newfound confidence and limitless potential.
“The research you do with McNair helps you successfully navigate and produce a research paper that you can use for your grad school admissions packet,” said Cavazos, who graduated from CWU in 2010 and joined the faculty in 2014.
“Without McNair, a lot of first-generation college students wouldn’t have the analytical approach they need to research a specific subject. This program puts them on a level playing field with others who are pursuing fields of graduate study, so the experience they gain is invaluable.”
Cavazos, who became a senior lecturer in the English department last fall, said he owes a great deal of his success to the faculty and staff who shepherded him through the program a decade ago. Now that he finds himself in a mentorship role, he never misses an opportunity to promote the McNair Scholars Program to his students.
“We’re always looking at our students’ abilities and strengths, and there is nothing more rewarding than when I hear someone say they want to advance their education,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, they haven’t even heard about the program, so it’s nice when we can point them toward an amazing opportunity to find mentorship and funding in a field they want to pursue.”
Building strong character
Guiding students through the grad school application process and supporting their research objectives are the long-standing priorities for the CWU McNair Scholars Program staff. But just as important, Nevar says, is helping the scholars develop confidence in themselves.
“A lot of these young men and women feel like they don’t belong in graduate school, so we try to show them that, ‘Yes, you do belong. You’ve earned this,’” she said. “We want to do anything we can to prepare them for success in graduate school and beyond.”
Program assistant Andrea Whitemarsh, faculty coordinator Lily Scott, work alongside Nevar to help students build network contacts, teach them interview skills, point them toward academic resources, and help them request letters of recommendation. They even offer etiquette training to prepare students for formal gatherings.
“We do everything we can to build these students up so they can serve as role models for their friends and family members back home,” said Nevar, who served as the program’s faculty coordinator from 2013-15. “All of our students are very motivated, and we’re continually amazed at everything they’ve accomplished.”
Nevar thanked her predecessor, Carnell, and former program coordinator Kristina Owens for everything they did to make the program better. She also recognized post-account manager Heather Harrell for the vital role she plays in the program’s success. Kevin Archer, CWU’s dean of graduate studies, has demonstrated unwavering support of the program, while the faculty mentors consistently show a willingness to share their time, energy, and knowledge with the scholars.
“The program would not exist without our superb mentors,” Nevar added. “They help create this wonderful academic community we enjoy here at Central.”
None of these efforts have gone unnoticed by students, past and present, who often talk about how valued they feel, both as scholars and as individuals.
“Pam and her staff really care,” said senior scholar Guadalupe Martinez, who is conducting research on juvenile justice as she looks to pursue a master’s degree in social services. “When you sit down with them, they are truly interested in what you have to say. And that is very motivating.”
Dickerson, the CLCE director, said being on the receiving end of that undying support from the CWU faculty and staff helped change his entire outlook. Despite some challenges in his youth, he said he always believed in himself; he just needed others to believe in him. The McNair Scholars Program showed him that he wasn’t alone in pursuit of his goals.
“I never thought I’d be pursuing a graduate degree, but McNair showed me that anything is possible if you set your mind to it,” said Dickerson, a former high school dropout who now has a long-term goal of becoming a university president. “The people I met provided me with the tools I needed to succeed, and they dispelled any doubts I had about how far I could go.”
The support network doesn’t stop with the CWU faculty and staff. The scholars themselves often become very close, spending time together in class, in their dedicated study room at the L&L building, and at after-hours social events.
Raeanne Tegman, a junior biology major, said she has benefited greatly from the many connections she has made since joining the program at the end of her sophomore year.
“I feel like I have a family here,” she said. “Everyone is so welcoming and supportive, and I’m so grateful for the relationships I have made through this program.”
Thanks to her experiences with McNair, Tegman is now working overtime to develop her resume for medical school while pursuing a master’s degree and Ph.D. She’s taking 18 credits this quarter while making plans for her summer research project related to Lyme disease in ticks.
“I feel like what I’ve learned in the past year has helped shape who I am becoming,” Tegman said. “In many ways, this program has changed my life.”
Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, David.Leder@cwu.edu.