This fall, Trinity University’s McNair Scholars Program was awarded a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to continue for another five years. This program, now in its 16th year at Trinity, provides funding and support to first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students planning to pursue a doctorate in a scholarly field of study following graduation.
The McNair Scholars Program—named for Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D., the second Black astronaut in space—is a nationwide initiative that grew out of the Civil Rights’ War on Poverty. Like Upward Bound and Pell Eligibility, this program's aim is to improve access to education for all. At Trinity, the program has served 186 students since 2007.
From their sophomore to senior year, McNair Scholars are provided with opportunities for research, academic support for their coursework, and preparations for graduate school and beyond. Scholars work with faculty mentors who guide them through the academic and adulting process through rigorous summer research, weekly classes, and group workshops. They are also supported by their peers through cultural events and time spent in the McNair Lair, a University supported lounge where Scholars study, work together, and socialize.
In the past five years, 54% of Trinity McNair students have immediately enrolled in graduate programs, while only 30%-45% of all Trinity students immediately enrolled in a graduate program during this period. For the grant cycle from 2022-23, projections show that 53% of Trinity McNair students will achieve a doctorate, far exceeding the 10% goal. Regardless of their decision to attend or finish graduate school, Kelly Lyons, Ph.D., program director, has seen great success for all scholars.
“It's an enormous source of pride when they go off and do great things,” Lyons says, “and even better when they come back and support the program. It can be a challenge to convince students to take the curriculum and activities seriously day-to-day, but they inevitably see how it pays off in the future—building that scaffolding and that foundation for them, not only as successful graduate students, but as successful leaders.”
There are currently 28 McNair Scholars at Trinity, including Julissa Ramirez ’24. Ramirez is a music education major who, after graduating from Trinity, plans on completing a Master of Arts in Teaching at Trinity before pursuing her doctorate.
“Being a McNair Scholar has opened so many doors for me,” Ramirez says, “including even considering the possibility of continuing my education beyond my time as an undergraduate student. This program has made me realize the potential that I have to be a successful graduate student one day.”
One of the unique aspects of Trinity’s McNair Scholars Program is the opportunity for students to conduct research with a faculty adviser over the summer. Students are supported by Department of Education funding with a stipend, board allowance, travel to and from home, conference attendance, and graduate school visits. The University pays for housing and supplemental board allowance. This support means that Scholars do not have to work over the summer and can focus on their research, making them more competitive for graduate study.
“I have been able to have two summer research experiences at Trinity under the guidance of Dr. Dany Munoz-Pinto,” says Anna Gonzalez ’23, another current McNair Scholar who is an engineering science major and mathematics minor. “Through these experiences, I was able to see that I wanted to make research into a future career, and I truly began to consider doctoral programs for after graduation.”
Ramirez also took advantage of the chance to conduct summer research. “McNair provided me with the incredible opportunity to complete fully-funded research this summer,” Ramirez says. “Not only was I able to complete research because of the resources of the McNair Scholars Program, I was able to undergo a process that taught me what doing and presenting research even felt and looked like. It was a profound learning experience that made me think, ‘This really might be something that I would enjoy doing in the future.’”
Summer research, though enriching, was a challenge for Ramirez. “There were times when I wanted to quit because, let's be honest, I was an undergraduate student trying to just figure out the right research design for this project, but the support that the McNair Scholars Program provides is undeniable,” Ramirez says.
Lyons foresees that the $1.6 million grant renewal will allow the program to continue doing what it does best—providing the support students like Ramirez, Gonzalez, and others need to see themselves succeed.
“There's a lot of push in our program to try novel approaches to help our scholars thrive. Our successes, seeing the number of scholars that we place with full funding in graduate programs each year, is a demonstration that we are getting it right,” Lyons says. “All we need to do is continue to be scholar-focused in a personal and tailored way. It requires a lot of effort but the payoff is enormous.”
The scholars have faced many challenges during their time at Trinity, including juggling their busy lives in a rapidly changing world. “The pandemic shifted my college experience in an unexpected way,” Gonzalez says, “but I'm thankful to the McNair Program and the engineering department at Trinity for helping me continue to push and reach my goals. Learning online was very difficult, but my professors were understanding and made a strong effort to host as many office hours as possible and help students.”
The McNair Scholars Program is an invaluable resource, both for helping students realize their passions for academia and for welcoming first-generation, underrepresented students in higher education. Because of their grant renewal, the program will continue to support Scholars as they achieve great things at Trinity and beyond.
“Sometimes, it takes someone to believe in you first for you to believe in yourself,” Ramirez says.