McNair Scholars Program Builds a Bridge to Doctoral Studies

Kalvalya Molugu, graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works with stem cells in a lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) on Oct. 26, 2018. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)

What does it look like to teach history through movement? Can hip-hop heal? Breanna Taylor x’19 came to UW–Madison in 2016 determined to find out.

“I started just jotting down questions that I had about dance,” says Taylor. “The question I came up with was ‘What does it look like for black people practicing hip-hop to heal from what is considered a black art form?’ ” Taylor, an Afro-American studies major, was quickly directed to the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (McNair Scholars Program) when she arrived at UW–Madison. Upon admission to the program, she was encouraged to seek answers to her questions.

After spending her first year in the McNair Scholars Program, Taylor has applied to six graduate programs and begun her research project, “Eventually I Have to Breathe: An Examination of the Practice of Hip-Hop with the Traumatized Black Body.” Taylor will graduate in spring 2019 and plans to continue her Afro-American studies with an emphasis on dance and movement after she spends time dancing professionally.

“McNair has been [at UW–Madison] a very long time (since 1995),” says the UW’s interim vice provost, Cheryl Gittens, who now oversees the program’s transition from being housed by the Graduate School to the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement. “It has a long history of engaging the targeted student populations in rich undergraduate research opportunities, collaborations and partnerships with faculty members, and academic and scholarly seminars.”

The McNair Scholars Program was inspired by the life of Ronald E. McNair, who was born in 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, at the brink of a bustling economy and a brewing civil rights movement. He was the son of Carl, a mechanic, and Pearl McNair, a school teacher. Ronald earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and a Ph.D. in laser physics by the age of 26. As an expert in laser physics, McNair was awarded numerous recognitions and was chosen to work with NASA’s space shuttle program in 1978 as one of the first African American astronauts.

The esteemed astronaut was later selected to board the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which met a tragic end when it exploded just moments after takeoff, killing all seven passengers.

“[America] was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required, and who gave it with little thought to worldly reward,” President Ronald Reagan said in response to the 1986 space shuttle disaster.

Following McNair’s death, the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program was created and added to the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO program. The McNair Program is now funded at 151 colleges and universities. The goal? To show first-generation and underrepresented college students that doctoral degrees are within reach.

“This program was named after him because of its goal to increase the attainment of PhDs amongst individuals who more accurately reflect the diversity in society,” says Gittens, who came to the university in August 2017 after serving at the McNair Scholars Program at Virginia Tech.

For Khadejah Ray, M.S. (’19), the program has provided a bridge to graduate school and given her a cohort of scholars to support her on her academic journey. Ray participated in the McNair Program at the University of California–Los Angeles and came to Madison two years ago as a graduate student in the Educational Leadership Policy Analysis program.

Now an Edgar’s Fellow and a member of the inaugural fellowship cohort at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, Ray intends to pass on what she’s learned and gained by spending time with young McNair scholars this spring.

“I didn’t get here by myself … it’s important to always pay it forward. When you get to a certain place, you have to reach your hand out and bring the people under you up because at one point, someone reached their hand out to you and brought you up,” Ray says.

“We really value time in this particular program,” says Gittens, adding that donations are always an option, but alums reading personal statements, sharing opportunities, and offering insights to students are some of the best ways to give back to the program.

“Having our alumni come back and engage our scholars is extremely valuable,” Gittens says.

According to Gittens, McNair scholars follow several main objectives: to engage in research and scholarly activities during their undergraduate career, to enroll and persistin graduate study immediately after receiving their bachelor’s degrees, and to graduate with a doctoral degree within 10 years of their undergraduate study.

“I think it’s important to know, for alumni who are still in processes of pursuing graduate study, that McNair students are often afforded application fee waivers at many institutions,” says Gittens.

The program also supports alumni by hiring a graduate assistant, often from the ranks of recent undergraduate alumni.

“By having a graduate assistant position we’re able to offer some financial support as well as professional development to a McNair scholar,” she says.

“You were a McNair scholar … you are a McNair scholar,” says Gittens. “We are still here to support you in realizing that dream.”

About RONALD E. MCNAIR (1950-1986)

Ronald Erwin McNair was a physicist and one of the first African American astronauts to go into space.  He was also the first black astronaut to die on a space mission.  McNair was born to Carl McNair, an auto body repairman, and Pearl McNair, a high school teacher, on October 21st, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina.  He grew up in Lake City picking cotton and tobacco until he graduated from Carver High School in 1967.

McNair attended North Carolina’s Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University, graduating in 1971.  In 1976, McNair received his doctorate in Philosophy of Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  In the same year, McNair married Cheryl Moore.  Dr. McNair earned his PhD in laser physics at the age of 26.

Following his graduation from MIT in 1976, Dr. McNair became a physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California.  The National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) selected him as an astronaut candidate in January of 1978.   As a candidate, he finished a one-year training and evaluation period in August of 1979, making him a competitive applicant as a mission specialist astronaut on space shuttle flight crews.

Dr. McNair flew his first mission on February 3, 1984, as a mission specialist on STS 41-B, which marked the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit.  This was the first landing of the Challenger on Kennedy Space Center’s runway on February 11, 1984.  The flight cumulated in Dr. McNair achieving 191 hours in space.

In 1986, Dr. McNair was given a mission specialist position on STS 51-L.  One minute and fifty-three seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the Challenger exploded, killing Dr. McNair and all of the crew on board.

In honor of Dr. McNair, Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program that encourages minorities from low-income families and first generation college students to pursue graduate studies.

Dr. McNair received many awards including the following: National Society of Black Professional Engineers Distinguished National Scientist Award (1979), Friend of Freedom (1981), and Who’s Who Among Black Americans (1980).  He was presented with an honorary doctorate of Law from North Carolina A&T State University in 1978, an honorary doctorate of Science from Morris College in 1980, and an honorary doctorate of Science from the University of South Carolina in 1984.

In addition to his career as a physicist and astronaut, Dr. McNair held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was also an accomplished performing jazz saxophonist.

Dr. McNair is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and their two children.