In April 2012, then-freshman James Kale II, LSOE ’16, moderated a talk during Black Family Weekend. During the talk, the speaker asked members of the audience to raise their hands if their parents were from another country. Kale noticed nearly every student in the room had raised his or her hands.
This sparked his curiosity, and he realized that there is an achievement difference between native students of color and those who are the children of immigrants. Now, as a student in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program, Kale conducts research on the achievement gap within the African diaspora.
Kale, who is now a junior, works with two academic advisors—Shawn McGuffey, associate professor of sociology, and Hiroshi Nakazato, associate director of the international studies program— to analyze the differences in achievement between black immigrants and the native born. He and 10 other Boston College students are McNair Scholars.
The McNair Program is a federally funded research program. Including Boston College, there are 158 programs at colleges and universities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The goal of the program is to provide support to first-generation college students who aim to attend graduate school. During the first year of the program, students learn research methods, and during the second and possibly third year—depending on whether the student applies as a freshman or sophomore—students conduct their own research. Students receive monthly academic counseling and take a GRE prep course as well.
There is also a study abroad component. Last year, some students spent three weeks in Ecuador, where they took a globalization course.
At BC, the McNair Program is a subsidiary of the Learning to Learn program. The McNair Program recently changed so that first-generation students can apply at the end of their freshman or sophomore year—Kale is a member of the first class allowed to apply at the end of freshman year, rather than as a sophomore.
“I thought it was interesting—the fact that you get to conduct research on whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you’re interested in, and then they help you out for grad school,” he said. “I do not want to stop here. They are helping me find the best program for me.”
Each student in the program is assigned a faculty mentor relevant to the topic on which he or she is interested in conducting research. Students generally begin to conduct research during the spring semester of their first year and then continue their research during the summer and next year, said Associate Director Rossana Conteras-Godfrey. Topics range from assessments of social support in Haiti to transcription and regulation of cells.
Students can ask a particular faculty member to be their advisor, or the faculty member can contact the office and offer to serve. Robert Murphy, an associate professor within the economics department, advises Federico Clerici-Hermandinger, A&S ’16, who is conducting research on Argentina’s exchange rate.
Faculty advisors provide general mentoring and help students with their research, Murphy said.
“The most meaningful part is seeing students complete their research project and give a presentation,” he said. “Seeing students gain the confidence that they can pursue and succeed in graduate study.”
Because the program is sponsored by the Department of Education, applicants must meet a rigorous standard. Current freshmen and sophomores who apply must be low-income and first generation, or from an otherwise underrepresented group in graduate education. Member students must have a minimum 2.8 GPA, submit two faculty recommendations as well as their transcript, and be interviewed.
“We accomplish our goal by selecting a high caliber student who is interested in continuing his or her education beyond the bachelor’s degree,” Conteras-Godfrey said. “We provide academic advising and planning to ensure students are performing at their highest level so that they are competitive in the graduate application process.”
In addition to teaching research methods, the program has exposed Kale to different students on campus. Through the program, he said he has learned more about different programs where he can earn his master’s degree.
“It has helped me become a better researcher and a better writer,” he said. “It has honed a lot of my skills and my intelligence. The fact that they are giving me that skillset, that time, and that attention to do better and be better—that has changed my experience completely.”
Since its inception at BC in 2003, the McNair Program has changed. Now, McNair scholars spend eight weeks on campus the summer after their first year in the program. There, they work with a faculty advisor in their field of study to learn research methods and continue the research they started in the spring. At the end of the summer, students present their findings in a symposium.
Conteras-Godfrey has also developed the Graduate Mentor Program, which matches McNair students with BC graduate students and the McNair Exploratory Program, where freshmen are matched with faculty mentors in their area of interest. This program runs in the spring semester and seeks to educate BC freshmen and graduate education and research.
“The goal is to expose students to faculty earlier in their college career and at the same time learn about the McNair program and its benefits,” she said.
Wendy Doan, A&S ’18, applied to the McNair program at the end of her freshman year. Doan is a biology major, and the program has introduced the possibilities of going into academia or research instead of going to medical school. Doan’s research focuses on vaccines and bacterial pathogens. The program has helped her to continue being a competitive student. She is also thankful to have met the other McNair students—she could not have gotten through the summer program without them, she said.
“Although we didn’t all have research in the same area, it was a good learning experience to hear about other people’s ideas,” she said. “McNair fosters a positive environment for students to pursue their research goals without the competitive and cut-throat academic environment here at BC.”
Last year, five alumni from the classes of 2013 and 2014 were accepted into doctoral programs and two alumni earned their doctoral degrees. Over 60 percent of participants enroll in a post-graduate institution, Conteras-Godfrey said.
“The McNair Program targets a particular population that may not necessarily see themselves pursuing a graduate education beyond the bachelor’s degree,” she said. “We are also unique because we work closely with students to ensure they are supported through this difficulty process; we advocate on their behalf and assist them in making decisions that affect their future goals.”
Photo Courtesy of the Office of Marketing Communications