In August 2022, Boston College received the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This grant consists of $1.3 million for the next five years, focusing on aiding students who aspire to pursue a graduate education with an emphasis on obtaining a doctoral degree. The McNair Scholars Program is a nationwide TRIO organization that is funded by the U.S. Department of Education across the United States and Puerto Rico. The program was designed to prepare undergraduate students who are from first generation, low-income, and underrepresented backgrounds for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. The goal of the national program is “to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society.” This year, 187 institutions received grants out of the pool of around 1,000 applications. Institutions compete for the grant every five years with the main goal of 50% of each institution’s scholars applying to and enrolling in graduate programs with a greater focus on PhD degrees.
The national program is named in honor of the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair, one of the seven crew members aboard the U.S. Challenger space shuttle. Despite social and economic barriers, Dr. McNair achieved many accomplishments, including being the second African American to fly in space, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from North Carolina A&T State with magna cum laude recognition, and earning his PhD degree in laser physics from the Massachusetts Institution of Technology. After his unfortunate death in the Challenger accident, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, and he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Participants of the program receive programming and services that support their research and ambitions towards attaining a graduate degree, which includes workshops, seminars, summer research, and graduate school preparation to assist them with graduate applications to programs all over the country. There are three major services that McNair Scholars participate in. First, within their field of study, each student is paired with a faculty member who helps with their research planning and implementation process; the faculty mentors also provide guidance in regards to graduate programs. There are also local and regional conferences and research forums that allow students to be exposed to research and academia. Second, during the first year of the program, each student meets with their faculty mentor once a month to explore different research opportunities. If they are working on a research project already, their mentor can provide aid as well. During the program’s second year, the student will complete their research project with support from their faculty mentor. The students present their research project at the conclusion of the 8-week summer research program. Third, the McNair Program helps students with standardized test preparation, visiting and assessing graduate schools, and applying for financial aid and fellowships for graduate school applications. Specifically at Boston College, students receive special library privileges through the O’Neill Library, including obtaining graduate student borrowing status and an assigned librarian.
At Boston College, the McNair Scholars Program will be accepting applications for the next cohort in December 2022 and should be submitted during the spring semester of freshman or sophomore year. The program is located in the Learning to Learn Office located at 50 College Road. Each year, there is a cohort of 12 students in the McNair Scholars Program that participate in the different services that the program provides. Throughout the summer program, students will work on their independent research projects and graduate school applications. They often visit different institutions to express interest in the program and meet faculty members aligned with their interests. Students are also required to attend and present at at least one conference, helping them improve their technical, research, and presentation skills.
In order to be considered for the program, students have to be either first-generation, low income, or identify as an underrepresented minority in graduate studies. The federal requirements of the program mainly emphasizes first generation students. The Learning to Learn office will reach out to faculty and departments about specific students whom they have noticed in class and may be specifically interested in pursuing the program. There is a 2.8 GPA requirement for the program, and students must also provide two faculty letters of recommendations, an application essay, and an interview with the office. Chasneika Astacio, the Associate Director of the McNair Scholars Program, stated in an interview that she looks for students who know that they want to pursue graduate studies and understand how the program could further their agenda.
Astacio’s long-term goal of the program is to get all scholars to apply and get into graduate programs. Over the past 10 years, the program has successfully sent 63% of its scholars to post-grad institutions. On average, eight to nine scholars will go to graduate school with two normally pursuing a PhD immediately after their undergraduate studies; some students will pursue a masters followed by a PhD degree, and some students will pursue medical school or law school. Astacio’s advice to students interested in participating in the program is to “ask all the questions, come and talk to the office. A lot of the time, students don’t apply because they don’t meet the GPA requirement or don’t know if they are first generation…. Get clarity around the program and what the office does.”