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Federal Grant Enables McNair Scholars to Prepare More Students for Grad Study

By Jeff Murphy, September 29, 2017

WARRENSBURG, MO – After graduating from J.C. Penney High School in Hamilton, Mo., Skip Crooker took a trailblazing step to become the first member of his family to enroll in college. A couple of years into the study of economics at the University of Central Missouri, a faculty member took note of his strong academic skills and suggested something the first-generation college student considered unthinkable – prepare for doctoral study.

Crooker now jokes that as a student in the early 1990s the idea of him earning a doctorate seemed about as feasible as fulfilling his childhood dream to become the Kansas City Royals’ shortstop. After giving it some thought, however, he not only embraced the idea of pursuing a Ph.D., and achieved that goal, but now mentors other UCM students who want to follow the same path through the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.  Known on campus as the McNair Scholars Program, it is housed in the College of Education within the Department of Academic Enrichment.

Serving as a UCM faculty member and director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, Crooker is one of a growing number of university graduates who have returned to higher education after completing this federally funded program. This unique initiative now has an opportunity to extend its services in support of many more UCM students, thanks to the renewal of a federal grant.

The university recently learned that it will receive $256,547 in federal funding for McNair Scholars for the budget year, beginning Oct. 1, 2017. Additional support is anticipated in the future, bringing the funding total to $1,282,735 over the next five-years, according to Margaret Shull, program director.

The McNair Scholars Program is named for NASA astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 while seeking to become the second African American to fly in space. As a memorial, the U.S. Congress established a new TRIO program in his name in 1989 for the purpose of preparing first-generation, low-income college students and students underrepresented in higher education for doctoral study. The program was established at UCM in 1991, and Crooker became a member of the first cohort class before going on to complete a doctorate at Iowa State University in Ames.

“The McNair Scholars Program is funded to serve 28 students annually,”   Shull said. “Students generally enter the program during the fall of their junior year. Recruitment for the program occurs during September and October.”

She noted that McNair students are selected for the two-year program based on an interview and application process. Once they become a McNair Scholar, students have opportunities to participate in research and other scholarly activities such as informational seminars, conducting research under the guidance of faculty mentors, participating in graduate school campus visits, and the opportunity for a paid summer research internship.

Participants also have an opportunity to publish their summer research projects in “The McNair Journal,” an annual UCM publication, and present their research to an audience during the UCM McNair Research Symposium in September.

“The greatest benefit for our participants is the individual mentoring and research support they are given so they can better appreciate and achieve their abilities as researchers,” Shull said.

Each student works with a three-member faculty mentor team. This group consists of a Discipline Mentor to provide individual academic advisement regarding graduate studies in the student’s major field. It also includes a Library Mentor who helps the student achieve information literacy, and a Research Mentor, who supervises and guides all activities related to planning and executing the scholar’s research.

“You don’t write a lot of research papers at the undergraduate level, so that was certainly something I was doing for the first time in my life,” Crooker said in talking about the McNair Scholars research experience that gave him an opportunity to use his skills in data analysis. “This was part of the program to get students acclimated to doing things that won’t seem foreign to them when they get into graduate school.”

Shull said articles and abstracts represent a breadth of disciplines, and “the uniformity of the scholars’ dedication to acquiring knowledge encompassed in the academic research process.” Some research relates to topics that are in the national spotlight. In the most recent issue of “The McNair Journal,” for example, there is a featured study by Lacy Hembree, a senior political science major, with Robynn Kuhlmann, assistant professor of political science. It “explores factors of exposure to sexual violence on college campuses and correlations between sexual victimization and poverty.”  One of the journal’s abstracts deals with the emotional effects of military service. Kiera C.A. Green, a senior criminal justice major, and Gene Bonham, professor of criminal justice, collaborated on this study, “From Shell Shock to PTSD: How Print Media Portray Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Shull said a goal for McNair Scholars is to prepare students for doctoral study and return to the professoriate. Including Crooker, the university currently has three faculty members who were UCM McNair Scholars as undergraduates, and went on to achieve doctoral degrees. Also on the faculty are Amber Clifford-Napoleone, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology and curator of the McClure Archives and University Museum; and Ken Bias, Ed.D., professor in the Department of  Nutrition and Kinesiology.

“Previous participants have earned a total of 70 doctoral degrees of various types and are engaged in many areas of work,” Shull said. “Several are faculty members at other colleges or universities. Some have become lawyers, and one is a judge. We have several who have become pharmacists, physical therapists, and osteopaths.”

For Crooker, being a McNair Scholar has come full circle. In addition to serving as a mentor to students, he participates in the McNair Scholars student interview process, and continues to be a fervent advocate for the benefits of McNair Scholars as a way to help qualified students learn how to navigate the often complex process of graduate school preparation. This includes gaining a wealth of knowledge that ranges from financial aid and how to conduct scholarly research to discovering how to prepare for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and taking courses that will help the student make a smooth transition into graduate study.

“I received a lot of encouragement about which classes I should take at UCM that were going to help me most to be successful in graduate school,” he said. “I had a really nice background of classes that made graduate school so much easier because I had already been exposed to so many ideas at the undergraduate level.”

Crooker attributes the longevity and success of the McNair Scholars Program to strong faculty and staff support at UCM.

He noted, “The program is so strong and the leaders we have on campus, and the way they nurture students, is incredible.  They have changed the direction of so many students. I’ve seen it firsthand, and it’s absolutely outstanding.”


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