Proposed Cuts for McNair Scholars Program

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  • Jade Bing thought she’d earn a living installing sheetrock and laying tile like her father, but today she’s on the path to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Davarian Baldwin didn’t want to become a factory worker like his mother, grandfather and uncles. Now he is Dr. Baldwin, a distinguished professor in American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct.

    “I’m from a hardscrabble town of 3,000, Beloit, Wis.," said Baldwin, whose grandmother was a domestic worker. “It’s a big deal to go to NYU and be a professor.”

    Baldwin and Bing say they are living their dreams because of the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement program, the “only federal program dedicated to increasing the number of underserved students … who pursue a graduate degree,” according to a press release issued by the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE).

    Now the U.S. Department of Education has proposed cutting funding by $10 million to the post-baccalaureate program, shifting the money to another program and “threatening the impact and sustainability” of the McNair Scholars, the council said.

    “It’s one of very few programs across the government that really focuses on getting low-income students thinking about graduate education, turning them into thought leaders and professors,” said Kimberly A. Jones, Esq., Associate Vice President for Public Policy for COE, which is dedicated to expanding college opportunities for underserved students across the United States.

    “Ten million dollars doesn’t sound like a lot, but it represents a loss of 20 to 30 percent of the programs,” said Jones. “There are 200 programs across the country. This cut means about 75 campuses won’t have programs in fall.”

    Some 2,000 students will be impacted immediately if funding is reduced.

    Baldwin, 40, was at Marquette University as an undergraduate student studying marketing, which he discovered he hated, when he ran into the new director of the McNair Scholars, who told him as a professor “you can speak and write in ways that reflect your own ideas and not those of someone else.”

    Baldwin was intrigued.  He said the director introduced him “to a world of intellectual curiosity, narrative creativity, archival rigor, and analytic dexterity…”

    But Baldwin said he also discovered that what the McNair program did for him and other students of color was to give them access to a social network that his white peers were privy to by way of their parents or family friends.

    “They give us intangibles. For instance when I applied to NYU, they were only accepting applications from certain schools. I was accepted but I was told they couldn’t afford to give me any money. I knew I couldn’t go to New York without money. What McNair taught me was how to present myself, how to navigate in the face of very intimidating circumstances so my application goes to the top of the pile. So I booked my own ticket to New York and set up appointments with the director of the graduate programs in American Studies. By the time I returned home to Milwaukee, they called to say they found the money.”

    He taught at Boston College for eight years and then was offered a distinguished professorship at Trinity at age 38, becoming the youngest endowed chair the school had ever had. He now mentors other students of color, providing them with the access to learn about the world of academia.

    Jade Bing is a “super senior,” in her fifth year at Rider University, where she has a major is biochemistry and a minor in math and Spanish. After doing research in a lab for a year and a half she has determined she wants to pursue her Ph.D., specifically, in organic chemistry.

    She was an undergraduate student who loved science but had no idea what she wanted to major in when she was received information about the McNair Scholars.

    “I was used to working with my hands, doing manual labor,” said Bing, 21. “While contracting I would be thinking: Why are porcelain tiles harder to bond than ceramic? Why do you have to apply this type of primer when using this type of paint?”

    Bing will be entering her second year as a scholar. “I knew I wanted to get the doctorate. I see now my dad is over 50 and still doing manual labor. It takes a toll on your body. I thought getting a Ph.D. is a way of getting me out of that situation.

    “The McNair program is perfect for me and a lot of first generation college students. In spite of my parents being smart, they didn’t go to college, so they don’t know about applying for college and certainly not about the process involved in getting a doctorate.”

    McNair, Bing said, opened up opportunities and educated her about academia and the process for getting a higher education. Through the program, she found out about lab opportunities and how to apply for them. This summer she’s a part of the Princeton Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.

    “If I was not in McNair, I don’t think I would have gotten into this program or receive the awards I’ve received,” said Bing. “My advisor would stay with me till 10 or 11 at night to work on my personal statement.”

    Bing has already seen some impact due to the threat of funding cuts. Some trips to conferences have been cancelled. In addition to her concern for herself, she is concerned others won’t have opportunities she has already had.

    Bing said when she did not have money to travel to a conference to present her research paper; the post-baccalaureate program paid her way. And when she didn’t have money to buy business attire to wear, an anonymous donor paid for it through the program. Bing said the McNair Scholars program has also helped pay her way to meet with professors at graduate schools she is considering applying to.

    “This program has been one of the greatest success stories in higher education,” Baldwin said. “To be cutting money instead of giving more is an embarrassment. There is probably no program with the success of the McNair program, creating first generation professors.”

    Jones said there are McNair Scholars teaching on campuses across the country and that the ripple effect of the program and its graduates is immeasurable. “You are more likely to be successful if you have professors who look like you. They bring a wide range of research and diversity to academia and knowledge to help people in communities of color.”

    Meanwhile, Jones said. “We’ve had several meetings with DOE. We have until the end of summer to try to undo what is proposed. People should call their congressional representatives and ask them to support the McNair Program.
     

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