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Undergrad scholars enter graduate incubators

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet Staff
Monday August 13, 2001

What are the Latino perceptions of success? How do Guatemala’s women organizations fight against social exclusion? Who are Silicon Valley’s new Vietnamese entrepreneurs?  

These are only a few of the research projects that about 100 students presented during the 9th Annual Western McNair Scholars Symposium that took place at UC Berkeley this weekend. 

The conference gathered together students from 18 western institutions offering the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, a U.S Department of Education-sponsored program that allows underrepresented, low-income or first-generation college students across the country to initiate graduate studies. 

“The purpose of the program is to foster a process in which undergraduate students would go on to do significant studies that would help them go to graduate schools, and specifically doctorate programs,” said Harold Campbell, the program’s director at UC Berkeley.  

Participants of the conference, he added, could be the next generation of researchers and professors. 

Created in 1986 in honor of Robert E. McNair, a laser physicist at the NASA who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the McNair Scholars Program exists in approximately 190 universities across the country and serves more than 4,000 students every year. To be eligible, students must enter one of the three categories of people the program is designed for, be sophomore or juniors, have a grade point average of at least 3.6 and show strong motivation in completing Ph.D. studies. Once admitted, students receive a $2,800 stipend for the year and are assigned a mentor who helps them produce a research paper on a topic related to their major. They also attend workshops and receive advice on how to successfully apply to graduate schools. 

“These are students who have traditionally been told, ‘This is not for you, you can’t do this,’” said Daphne Muse, program research coordinator at UC Berkeley, as she explained the benefits of the program. “[The program] serves as a kind of intellectual incubator where they can come and evolve into scholars.” 

Being assisted when they apply to graduate school, many scholars said, is one of the main strengths of the program. 

“They give you the resources and the information that a lot of students if they want to go to graduate work may not know,” said Nadia Leal, from UC San Diego. 

The program, others said, also gives scholars a concrete idea of what graduate studies would mean in terms of academic work. 

“With this program, it’s much clearer [to] me now that I love research,” said Carlos Almendarez, a 20-year-old scholar in history at UC Berkeley. “Now I understand what the graduate life and the life of a professor can be.” 

Another positive aspect of the program, said Le Ondra Clark, a psychology student at California State Polytechnic University in Petaluma, is that it gives students the opportunity to start getting known in their field of study. 

“It helps you get out and get your name out there, get your research out there” she said. “That’s really crucial to success in graduate schools.” 

Clark, whose presentation was a study of the body image of college students, also enjoyed being part of a smaller group of students within campus.  

Because they have similar aspirations, she said, her group developed a sense of family. 

“We all really click,” she said. “That’s not something that you really find in the general population. Normally you go to class and find only one or two people that are like you, that have similar goals.” 

The program in Berkeley has been quite successful. Four former scholars already received their Ph.D.. That’s good, Campbell said, because it can take up to seven years for a scholar to complete a doctorate coursework and the McNair program has only existed for nine years.  

“The results are favorable. People are moving through the pipeline” he said.  

To Muse, the best days are still to come.  

“I am totally convinced that out of this group of scholars we will get a Nobel laureate,” she said. “And that one of them will go on to become the chancellor of the UC system.”