The McNair Scholars Program, federally funded through the U.S. Department of Education, will soon welcome its third cohort of NC State juniors and seniors who plan to complete a Ph.D. within ten years of earning their undergraduate degree.
NC State received funding for five years to serve 25 students. The program is currently in its second year, with the second cohort graduating this May. Although there are about 190 McNair programs nationwide, North Carolina has only six, and before this grant cycle, only two: Fayetteville State and UNC Chapel Hill. Johnson C. Smith University, North Carolina Central University, UNC Greensboro and NC State have since joined them.
Courtney Simpson, senior director of TRIO Collegiate Programs, cowrote the grant with Marsha Pharr, assistant vice chancellor of DASA Pathways and executive director for TRIO Programs They submitted the grant in February of 2017 but had to wait until July 2017 to learn the outcome before an anticipated start date of September.
Simpson explains, “Once you write the grant, you are expected to have the infrastructure in place so that there’s no problem hiring staff and launching the program. In our case, our TRIO Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services students create a pipeline for eligible first-generation, underresourced students who already understand what it means to be a TRIO student.
She adds, “The McNair Program is an amazing program that provides academic support, identifies research opportunities, pays a stipend of up to $2,800 for summer experiences and prepares students for graduate school through application assistance. Two-thirds of the students are first-generation and financially underresourced, and one-third are from underrepresented racial backgrounds. The program supports them in successfully enrolling and completing graduate programs and then going on to the professoriate. They are then able to serve as mentors themselves.”
As a first-generation college student herself who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NC State, Simpson understands their needs and uses her experience to advocate for and mentor students. She remembers what it feels like to be the first to do things and not having all the answers. The program provides support for everything from daily challenges, time management, how to navigate a freshman writing course, and things other students familiar with the college experience might already know. Simpson recalls her own mentors on campus who were instrumental in her success and says, “We try to have a space where our students are first. When they have a question or concern about something, we try to provide for them.”
She also jokes with her staff about her responsibility to create a “TRIO takeover” at the university, so that everyone understands the value of first-generation and underresourced students’ experiences at all levels, “providing the space they need to be authentically themselves, and providing the university with their stories, to serve as advocates and cheerleaders for similar populations.”
Simpson also sees the potential of what success looks like, explaining that NC State is poised to benefit greatly from the program because it fits the campus. “We have amazing faculty here that value having diversity in their research, who want to alleviate access issues when it comes to research, and who are willing to meet our students where they are, answering their questions about how to approach research and how to succeed on a graduate level.”
With this level of commitment, Simpson says it is “amazing to see the trajectory of a land grant institution really working to enhance the state of North Carolina through educational pathways programs like TRIO, Juntos and the College Advising Corps that say, ‘we hope you apply to NC State and come back to NC State.’”
Elizabeth Snively writes for the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.