By Steve Vivona
Since 1999 St. John’s University has participated in the McNair Scholars Program, a rigorous training ground for the next generation of academic faculty. Designed to pair undergraduate students with faculty mentors for accelerated projects and research outside the classroom environment, the program was recently refunded for another four years with a grant of $837,000.
Named for Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, is designed to educate the next generation of persons traditionally underrepresented in higher education and often first-generation college students themselves to pursue a faculty position at the university level.
Dr. Frank Biafora and Dr. Andre McKenzie wrote the original grant proposal for the University. “My personal challenge was to write a grant (for) students who typically did not have opportunities or were even able to fathom the dream of becoming a university professor,” Dr. Biafora said during a recent interview with Web News, adding that it needed to reach out into the classroom and find those students “who had promise.”
The program is essentially designed to prepare students for graduate school, pairing them up with a faculty mentor in their junior year. Students work on research projects, attend conferences, and present papers to their professors and other McNair scholars. The program is designed to provide students with the tools necessary to succeed in graduate school, Dr. Biafora stressed.
“We received the grant, and it was a huge success,” Dr. Biafora noted. There are 156 McNair programs in colleges and universities throughout the country and those involved comprise a network of individuals always ready to lend a hand. The McNair directors will often contact one another about students who they believe might benefit from a graduate program at their particular school.
“In a way, it’s an informal network to help underprivileged students access graduate education, put them in the pipeline for doctoral training, graduate them and get them decent jobs so they can stand up and be role models for the next generation” of university professors, Dr. Biafora noted.
Co-Directors Biafora and McKenzie, as well as Beverly Fields, Assistant Director of the program, interview all student applicants and make sure that they are truly interested in the academic track. “This is not a professional pipeline program. This is a Ph.D. pipeline program,” Dr. Biafora stressed.
“It’s by far the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had in academia,” Ms. Fields told Web Monthly. Having been with McNair since its inception at St. John’s she too has had a chance to watch the program grow. “I have the opportunity to prepare students early on for their graduate career,” she noted, stressing that she impresses upon her McNair students how far ahead of the game they are once they graduate.
"I had to learn how to do research when I arrived (in graduate school),” Ms. Fields observed. “We help develop the whole package before they graduate.” In addition to research, meeting with their advisor and attending conferences students learn how to dress for an interview, dining etiquette, how to write a personal statement and how to travel, since many have never left home.
Ms. Fields develops a personal relationship with each student and serves often as both an advisor and counselor. “I’m saving them from the trials and errors I experienced,” she noted.
There are now more applicants now than openings Dr. Biafora noted, adding that they accept 15 students per year. He was quick to point out this program requires an extraordinary commitment on behalf of the student. “They meet with their faculty advisor several times a week, engage in research,” in addition to all their other schoolwork. Students receive no academic credit for this program and are encouraged to let go of other extracurricular activities if there are anticipated time conflicts.
But Dr. Biafora said the rewards for such a commitment are great. During the summer between junior and senior year the McNair scholars have the opportunity to travel to another institution of higher learning to work with other scholars and faculty on their research project. Dr. Biafora told Web News that every effort is made to give students the chance to concentrate on the work as fully as possible. Students receive a $2,800 stipend so they do not need to work in the summer. “We want them to focus.”
Many McNair scholars from St. John’s will not attend graduate school here. “We want to share the knowledge base and spread the McNair scholars around the country. That’s what it’s all about.” In turn the Office of the Provost dedicates one McNair Fellowship annually as a recruiting tool for a successful McNair student from outside St. John’s.
Dr. Biafora said the program has seen substantial growth in the last four years. “We have many professors who have worked as mentors so the word is getting out. Students are coming to us. It’s become very grass roots.”
Ms. Fields called the McNair program, “invaluable,” adding that, “Our students will serve as role models for others. They see others like them who got through the process and know that it is possible.”