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Plaudits for McNair Program

Graduate Education now within reach for many students from traditionally underrepresented groups

Dan Bunch, Rossanna Contreras-Godfrey (right) and Paula Grealish administer the McNair Program at BC. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 29, 2012

While a student at Boston College, Grace Festin Caldara ’08 knew she wanted to become involved in research, but didn’t know where to start. Coming from a low-income family, she simply lacked the resources.
The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program changed that.

Now a fifth-year chemical biology PhD candidate at the University of California, Festin Caldara credits the McNair Program with helping expose her to the rigors of academe. By the time she graduated BC, Festin Caldara had spent two summers on campus working in a chemistry lab, co-authored two publications and traveled to the University of New Hampshire, the University of California and Knoxville, Tenn., for various conferences where she presented her research.

“The greatest benefit from the program was the support from the directors in allowing me to do my research and in providing me the resources to help me succeed,” said Festin Caldara.

Funded by the US Department of Education in some 200 institutions across the US and Puerto Rico, and established at BC in 2003, the McNair Program prepares undergraduates from underrepresented groups to attain graduate and doctoral degrees, enabling them to enter careers in research and academia. It has helped hundreds of students who are either low-income or the first in their family to attend college to continue educational pursuits.

The program is named for the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair, who overcame social and economic barriers to earn a PhD from MIT at age 26, and become the second African-American to go into space. He was one of the seven crew members killed aboard the Challenger space shuttle.

McNair Program Assistant Director Rossanna Contreras-Godfrey says stories like Festin Caldara’s are common.
“Once students complete the program, we see a level of confidence and direction that they didn’t have when they applied,” said Contreras-Godfrey. “Many simply are unaware of what is out there. What we do is plant a seed and support its growth. In doing that, we help our students realize and achieve their research and academic goals.”
Upon acceptance into the program, McNair scholars are paired with a faculty mentor. Members of the faculty oversee research opportunities, provide assessment and give advice about workshops, graduate school and the application process. McNair students enjoy special library privileges at BC, including graduate student borrowing status and an assigned librarian to assist with research needs. They are encouraged to pursue research projects over the summer and present at undergraduate symposia both at BC and around the country.

Dan Bunch, director of the University’s Learning to Learn Program, which administers the McNair Program, said the success of the program is in large part due to faculty partners who help students one-on-one.

“Rossanna has done a great job recruiting faculty members who work hard to shape and encourage the research of students who – until now – have not had exposure to this type of work,” Bunch said. “The support we have enjoyed across the disciplines and from the Provost’s office has been a testament to BC.”

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Donald Hafner notes that this year, McNair has placed particular emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Both [Provost and Dean of Faculties Cutberto Garza] and I see great potential in this McNair Exploratory-STEM program, in supporting students who might otherwise become discouraged about their prospects in the sciences and in testing innovative approaches to instruction in the sciences that might be adopted more widely. 

“This is a wonderful pilot venture, and our colleagues in biology, chemistry, and the McNair Scholars Program deserve great credit for designing the program and carrying it through on their own initiative,” said Hafner.

For more information, see /offices/ltl/mcnair