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McNair doctoral prep program renewed through 2022

Undergraduate students in Cornell’s current cohort of McNair scholars.

Underrepresented students at Cornell who want to pursue doctoral degrees can work toward that goal with research opportunities and support from the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.

The U.S. Department of Education recently approved Cornell’s continued participation in the federal program through 2022, and will provide funding of $232,000 a year over five years, up to $1.16 million.

Designed to prepare undergraduates for doctoral studies, the program serves first-generation college students and members of groups traditionally underrepresented in graduate education who have demonstrated strong academic potential and financial need.

With the guidance of a faculty mentor, students in the McNair program engage in research and scholarly activity to prepare them for entrance to doctoral programs in all fields of study. By advancing the academic achievement of eligible undergraduates, the initiative ultimately seeks to diversify the faculty in colleges and universities across the country.

Professor and chair of microbiology and immunology Avery August, Ph.D. ’94, is a faculty mentor. He said participating in the McNair program “is one of many steps we need to be taking to build a more diverse faculty.”

“The Cornell McNair program, and other programs like this, provide an important opportunity for underrepresented and first-generation undergraduates to gain critical research experience and scholarly skills for success in graduate school,” he said.

Sarah Jefferis, left, interim McNair Program adviser and writing coach, speaks with Amelia Bennett ’18, a McNair scholar, at a research symposium this summer.

Global and public health science major Rosario Majano ’18, a first-generation student from California, joined the program as a sophomore. She intends to become a faculty mentor herself.

“The paying it forward aspect is really important,” she said in June, after advocating for the program to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., with 10 other McNair scholars from Cornell. “We’re really changing the demographics of higher education and increasing the diversity of researchers.”

Administered by the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, the program provides eligible undergraduates with opportunities to join research groups, participate in academic-year and summer research and find internships. McNair scholars complete a research project as part of the program and can present their work at local, regional and national conferences, networking with faculty and graduate student mentors.

Participants also attend courses, seminars and workshops related to graduate school preparation, such as intensive Graduate Record Examination training. Resources include personal and academic counseling and a $2,500 stipend for summer research with a faculty mentor. The progress of McNair scholars who enroll in graduate programs is tracked through to the successful completion of advanced degrees.

Cornell received initial support to create the McNair Scholars Program from the Department of Education in 2012, starting with a $220,000 grant. Welcoming up to 25 undergraduates per academic year, the program has accommodated 87 Cornell students (including the current cohort) since September 2013; and 32 have gone on to graduate or professional degree programs.

The program is named for NASA astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in 1986 during the launch of space shuttle Challenger. It is one of eight Federal TRIO Programs, a college preparation and student support effort with a history of providing support to low-income and first-generation students.

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Lindsey Knewstub