McNair Scholars Program still going strong in 20th year

Despite his disadvantages as a low-income student, Darnell Leatherwood wants someday to be a professor.

The senior in Business is already looking at graduate schools at universities such as Ohio State and was one of 42 students presenting research at the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program’s 20th Annual Research Symposium at the Illini Union on Monday.

“I knew I wanted to be a Ph.D.,” Leatherwood said. “For my research I looked at factors that affect the success of low-income African-American students.”

Leatherwood’s research is just one of many projects this year’s McNair scholars have been working on as part of their Summer Research Institute, the main component of the McNair Scholars Program.

The summer institute consists of academically successful low-income students working with faculty members in related fields that help guide the students’ research projects, said Celina Trujillo, assistant director of the McNair Scholars Program at the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA).

Offered by OMSA, the McNair program is one of many at institutions around the United States and Puerto Rico, Trujillo said.

The program is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and was established in honor of physicist Ronald McNair, who received his Ph.D., from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was one of the scientists killed instantly onboard the U.S. Challenger space shuttle when it exploded in 1986.

Trujillo said the McNair Scholars Program is directed toward underrepresented undergraduate students who are looking to pursue doctoral studies. Participants are typically low-income or first-generation students, as well as other students traditionally underrepresented in graduate research education.

“The only requirement the program has is that two-thirds of students need to be both low-income and first-generation,” Trujillo said.

Students must apply to the McNair Scholars Program during the school year, and those accepted are also provided with research and networking opportunities as well as resources for taking the GRE and applying to graduate schools.

Other people in attendance at Monday’s research symposium included team leaders who previously participated in the McNair Scholars Program during their undergraduate years.

“I help moderate the presentations and get things organized,” said Edward Ofori, a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health.

Ofori said participating in the program as a mentor helps him as he works toward becoming a professor.

“I’m trying to help motivate students, giving back. It gives practice for when I become a professor, because you have to know how to mentor students,” he said.

This year also marks the 20th year the program has been at the University. To commemorate the occasion, OMSA will be hosting a banquet Thursday evening at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. Current students, staff members and successful alumni are expected to attend, Trujillo said.

One familiar face attending this week’s events is Michael Jeffries, retired director of OMSA who has worked closely with the McNair Scholars Program since it came to the University in 1990.

“I’m a volunteer this year,” Jeffries said energetically. “But it’s still very inspiring and exciting to see all the students. The future’s bright.”