The McNair Scholars Program celebrates 25 years of guiding students into funded doctoral and master’s programs.
by Stephanie Jimenez
This year, alumni, students, and faculty members are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the McNair Scholars Program at John Jay College. Since its inception at the College, approximately 350 students have been serviced by the program, many of whom have gone on to pursue graduate and doctoral degrees at leading universities across the country.
The McNair Scholars Program is one of a group of federally funded TRIO initiatives, which are designed to help students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their full academic potential. McNair is focused on helping students attain their Ph.D.s, and in 1993, John Jay received its first grant to start the program on campus. It soon became incredibly successful: 70 percent of McNair students are accepted into a fully funded Ph.D. program, and 10–20 percent are accepted into a graduate school to pursue their master’s degree.
Students who become McNair Scholars often come from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their family to go to college. They usually begin the program as juniors, and for the remaining two years of their academic careers, they go through an exhaustive process intended to prepare them for a Ph.D. program. After completing a research module, they are paired with a faculty mentor who guides them through completing an independent research project, a process that is intended to mimic the experience of completing a doctoral dissertation. Students also complete a summer intensive, in which they continue working with their faculty mentor, receive extensive GRE prep, begin their graduate school applications, and attend a McNair research conference out of state.
Because McNair Scholars often face financial barriers, they also receive stipends to help cover academic expenses, including the costs associated with graduate school applications and site visits once they’re accepted. Associate Director Dr. Ernest Lee said that these supports are necessary to eliminate obstacles that students may face in getting accepted to graduate school. “These are students who have conquered a lot to get where they are academically,” said Dr. Lee. “All they need is a path to achieve their goals.”
One of the biggest benefits of the program is an invaluable social support network that includes faculty, alumni, and of course, fellow classmates. The College provides a lab equipped with computers and supplies where McNair Scholars can conduct research, study, and motivate one another as they complete their work. “The McNair Scholars generally don’t have families who know a lot about graduate school, so they bolster each other and advise each other,” said Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, who has been the director of the program for the past several years.
Dawn Berger, who graduated as a McNair Scholar in 2008 and received her Ph.D. from Fairleigh Dickinson in Clinical Psychology, agrees that first-generation students need both institutional knowledge and a strong social network to be successful. “To get to graduate school, there are so many things you need to do, and you need to know how and when to do them. You need someone to support you,” she said. “The support you get from McNair is like a family.” That family includes alumni who return to campus to support and mentor current cohorts of McNair Scholars. Albert Gamarra, who received a doctorate degree from John Jay and was the first in his family to graduate with a Ph.D., returned to campus this spring for an alumni panel, which is one of several events planned to celebrate the program’s 25th anniversary. “By seeing the people who’ve already gone through the program, current students can see that they’re not alone,” he said.
In addition to the alumni panel, the College is hosting a campus-wide celebration, co-sponsored by the Alumni Association, that takes place on April 20 and will include an Alumni Reunion reception and dinner. Dr. Lee is proud of the strength of the program at John Jay, which he attributes to the College’s enduring support as well as several faculty members—especially those in the Africana Studies Department, many of whom have served as mentors in the program. “What works is when faculty members steer students our way, and we show them that they have the potential to do this,” he said. “Students have doubts when they begin the process, but the most rewarding part is when they start receiving their Ph.D. acceptances.”
Already, students have started receiving those hard-earned acceptances in programs as varied as psychology, sociology, criminology, and more. Thuy Nguyen, a senior who has been accepted into a fully funded program in School Psychology and who hopes to conduct research on the school-to-prison pipeline, said she was one of those students who had never thought it’d be possible to attain a doctorate degree.
“I’m the first in my immediate family to even graduate high school, so this is a big deal for us,” she said. “Both of my parents are immigrants, and they want me to go after my dreams. They were like wow, you really did this.”