An investment the Graduate School made some years ago to prepare students for graduate studies is paying off for both the students and the university.

Beginning in 1999, the school received a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support its McNair Achievement Program. This national program was established in memory of physicist and Challenger astronaut Ronald E. McNair. The ultimate goal of the program is to diversify the faculty in colleges and universities across the country. The WSU program works toward this goal by preparing low-income first-generation and underrepresented (Native American, African American and Chicana/o Latina/o) undergraduates for future doctoral studies.

Just this year, WSU received a second grant, this time for four years, to continue its McNair program.

Meanwhile, the WSU program office is in the process of sending letters to faculty requesting that they nominate (by April) and/or consider mentoring McNair scholars for the 2005-06 cohort.

Nomination and study processes

Students who are nominated, or who wish to nominate themselves, must include two letters of recommendation from faculty. Students typically should have at least a 3.0 grade point average.

Applications are reviewed, and nominees interviewed, by WSU McNair Achievement Program staff: Steven Burkett, WSU program director; Ramon Herrera, academic coordinator; and graduate student and former McNair scholar from San Diego State University Patricia Celaya, graduate assistant.

McNair students typically take classes in both semesters of their junior year and the first semester of their senior year in preparation for graduate school. These classes help them develop oral and written skills, prepare for the GREs (graduate entrance exams), select graduate programs, apply to graduate schools and begin a research project to be completed in the summer under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Scholars must also present their results at a professional meeting and prepare a final paper to be published in the WSU McNair Journal or a journal in their field.

Rewards come with time

WSU has mentored 93 students in the program since 1999. None has yet earned a Ph.D., said Burkett, but that is likely just a matter of time.

“Our first cohort of scholars only has been graduated four or five years,” he said, “while the normal time for earning a Ph.D. may be six to seven years.

“Several of our students have completed master’s degrees,” he added.

These students are attending Ohio State, Arizona State, University of Arizona, University of California Berkeley, Florida Atlantic University, New Mexico State University and WSU, among others.

“Nationally, McNair students seem to be graduating and getting graduate degrees at a higher level than their peers who aren’t in any similar program,” Burkett said.

And that leads to another benefit for WSU: recruiting these high-caliber students for its own graduate studies programs.

“We yearly send the names from a national senior McNair Scholar database to all WSU graduate programs, saying ‘Go and recruit them,’ ” Burkett said. In addition, he attends national McNair graduate recruitment fairs looking for top McNair graduates from many of the 186 other schools nationwide that participate.

Recruiting graduate students

In the past two years, WSU has attracted about 20 graduate students from McNair undergraduate programs.

“To date, all have received degrees or are as yet enrolled,” Burkett said.

A good example, he said, is Jennifer Hernandez. A McNair scholar from New Mexico State University, she earned her Ph.D. from WSU in animal sciences last summer. She is employed at WSU as a post-doctoral research associate in the School of Molecular Biosciences.

The Graduate School waives the graduate student application fee for McNair students. It also was the 13th McNair program in the country (there are now about 40) to provide first-year assistantship funding for some McNair graduate students. Departments pick up that funding in subsequent years, Burkett said.

The McNair graduate students typically meet, perhaps in a panel discussion, with McNair program undergraduates during one of their classes, “so our undergraduate students see a living example of graduate students doing what they are preparing to do,” he said.

Learning and mentoring

The time and effort it is committing to the McNair program have moved WSU closer to its strategic goals of providing a successful undergraduate experience, a quality graduate education and an environment that respects diversity. The years of participation also have helped the Graduate School fine tune how it supports its McNair scholars.

“We are placing more emphasis on assisting them in their writing,” Burkett said. Dorene Ames, a graduate student in English and a former McNair scholar from Eastern Washington University, works on this with the undergraduates.

“We’ve beefed up our students’ preparation for the GREs,” Burkett continued, including getting help from a mathematics graduate student in studying for the quantitative part of the exam.

Finally, “we’re focusing more on faculty mentors,” Burkett said. “We are providing mentoring materials to them and meeting with them more regularly. We want to help them to keep encouraging and pushing their students along.

“Our mentors have been fantastic,” Burkett said.