McNair Scholars Program

A program that aims to encourage first-generation college students to pursue a graduate education and prepare them for success.

By Stephen Schwartz Photos by Nathaniel Corey Print Design by Margaret Butzen
Ronald McNair with the rest of the Space Shuttle Mission 41B. From Left to Right: Robert Stewart, Vance Brand, Ronald McNair, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and Bruce McCandless. Photo Credit: National Air and Space Administration (NASA ID: s83-40555)

Dr. Ronald E. McNair, the second African American in space whose life was so tragically ended while onboard the unforgettable flight of the Challenger in 1986, was much more than an astronaut. He established an unmatched passion for education early in life—graduating high school as valedictorian—and never slowing down. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree and eventually a Ph.D in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, publishing several groundbreaking studies along the way. McNair was widely regarded as a predominant figure in his field by the time he became affiliated with the space program.

The loss of such an inspirational individual sparked Congress to initiate a federally funded program honoring the man who dedicated much of his life to the institution of education: the McNair Scholars Program. This program aims to encourage ambitious, low-income, first-generation minority college students to pursue a master’s degree or even a Ph.D, helping to bridge this transition into an even more intense echelon of higher learning. Each year at UW-Madison, the McNair program does an exceptional job in preparing 25 highly qualified students for the kind of work they will encounter in graduate school, as well as provide them with the skills to become successful later in life.
The whole program revolves around a long-term research component that is a requirement for participants. Undergraduate students find a mentor in the UW-Madison’s faculty, who act as a guide as the students explore an area of interest in nearly any field of their choice. The program’s coordinator, Quentin Bell, who was a former McNair scholar himself, says they “want it to be as close as possible to graduate level research without it being overburdening.” This philosophy allows the scholars to experience the entire process from beginning to end, yet still leave an adequate amount of time for them to excel in their quest for an undergraduate degree.

It is really nice that they are taking this additional time to prepare the next generation of graduate students

Maya Holtzman

Maya Holtzman, the program’s associate director, describes this program as a “demystification of graduate education,” as it exposes the students to the type of work they are sure to encounter in their future studies. Holtzman goes on to explain how the idea of graduate school is often daunting given the backgrounds of most McNair scholars, but by introducing them to the research process early on, “it helps them to see what lies beyond an undergraduate degree.” This ultimately allows them to become much more comfortable in an academic environment.

In addition to the research they conduct, McNair scholars are required to present their findings at a national conference. This is an extraordinary opportunity for the participants, as their work has the potential to receive national recognition. For example, there have been instances in which McNair students from UW-Madison have won awards for their research from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). These conferences serve as invaluable experiences for the scholars as they finally get a chance to share their work with the world and, in doing so, develop a certain confidence that their work can actually make a difference.

Alumni often reflect upon their experiences as a McNair scholar with overwhelming enthusiasm. Many of them write back and cite how helpful the program was to their graduate studies, while others stay in touch on a purely personal level in order to retain the relationships they developed. The program checks in annually with all alumni for ten years after their graduation to see how things are going, and, unsurprisingly, the program boasts an impressive success rate. About 90 percent of McNair Scholars go on to graduate school, and of those who do, there is a very high percentage that obtain at least a master’s, if not a Ph.D. Many of them go on to become professors, and due to their success and affiliation with the McNair Scholar’s program, they end up becoming mentors for new McNair scholars themselves. This cycle of mentees becoming mentors speaks volumes to the immense impact that the McNair program has upon its participants.

The students, however, are not the only beneficiaries of this program; the mentors express just as much fervor for their roles in the program. Many faculty members are eager to take on a new McNair student after they experience the rewarding sensation of watching as their guidance manifests into an inspirational student who is capable of producing high-quality research. Their dedication is especially noteworthy given the fact that they do not receive anything in return for their service. “It is really nice that they are taking this additional time to prepare the next generation of graduate students,” Holtzman says. The pride they take in helping an individual reach their potential, and often the relationship that develops over the course of their interaction, is more than enough to keep them coming back.

The McNair Scholar’s program, while relatively small in nature, has the power to create a massive impact on the lives of very deserving individuals. Persuading first-generation college students to even consider graduate school is a feat on its own, but actually guiding them through the process and adequately preparing them for success is especially significant. The program is always encouraging qualified students to apply and hopes to continue its reputation of success into the future.