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McNair program helps level playing field for Blugolds pursuing postbaccalaureate success

| Alison Wagener

Obtaining a postgraduate degree may be one of the few ways millennials will be able to improve their financial standing. But graduate school isn’t as accessible as many people may think. In the United States, more than 80 percent of doctoral degree holders are white or Asian-American, and fewer than 20 percent of doctorates are earned by first-generation college students.

The McNair program hopes to change that.

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program is a federally funded initiative that provides a total funding package of up to $5,000 — including graduate application accommodations, a summer research stipend, travel grants and GRE material — to undergraduate participants. But the impact of the program goes far beyond funding.

“The mission of the McNair program is to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for graduate school with the objective of becoming research doctorates,” said UW-Eau Claire McNair program director Dr. Sanjukta Chaudhuri. "And so the underlying vision here, I believe, is to level the playing field in graduate education in the United States.”

McNair scholars are either first-generation college students from low-income households or from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in graduate studies and the professoriate, including African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander students. In addition to these federal criteria, UW-Eau Claire McNair participants also must be enrolled students interested in pursuing a graduate program and research doctorate, be nominated by a UW-Eau Claire faculty or academic staff member, and have a minimum GPA of 2.75.

At UW-Eau Claire, 26 juniors and seniors participate in the program each year. Since it began in 2000, UW-Eau Claire’s McNair program has provided more than 160 Blugolds the opportunity to be McNair scholars.

To prepare for their master’s and doctoral degree programs, McNair scholars participate in two years of intensive mentoring, specialized curricular and co-curricular offerings, collaborative research and paid internships.

Much of the program focuses on ensuring students are prepared for graduate school applications. This includes guiding them through the GRE, creating a curriculum vitae, writing personal statements, developing financial literacy and identifying financial aid opportunities.

“So it’s a lot of activities we do,” Chaudhuri said. “It’s all very exciting I think, and very motivational for our scholars, and that’s what I look forward to.”

Chaudhuri said she hopes the program will help the university reach its guidepost goal of closing the opportunity gap in higher education.

Changing perspectives

Chaudhuri said many students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the role models necessary to encourage them to achieve a graduate education, but the McNair program can make a life-changing difference.

“When I sit down with a student who simply expressed interest in the program, and I kind of explain to them what the program is about, invariably they go out with a sense of inspiration, saying, 'I never thought of it this way, and nobody ever told me they believed in me,'” Chaudhuri said. “'Nobody told me that I am graduate school material and that I can do it.’ And so I think the change starts with that very first meeting, and about 95 percent of the time, they come back saying, ‘I am really, really interested in doing this.’ And I think the change starts there.”

Participating in the McNair program provides students with an opportunity for personal transformation, giving them the skills necessary to improve not only their lives, but also those of their community members and future children.

"The inter-generational cycle of benefits of educational attainment begins with each McNair scholar,” Chaudhuri said. “My job is to start them off, but after that, it’s an exciting journey, it’s an incredible journey that they are going to complete over their lifetime and leave that legacy for future generations.”

The future of McNair at UW-Eau Claire

Chaudhuri became director of the McNair program this spring, but she has been a professor of economics at UW-Eau Claire since 2008.

As director, Chaudhuri is increasing efforts to motivate students. To work toward this, she has increased the travel budget for current McNair scholars. Students are traveling more than ever for conferences and graduate school visits, Chaudhuri said.

“I saw an immediate change in the way they viewed the McNair program and how motivated they feel,” Chaudhuri said. “It’s professional development travel, but it’s not just about the work you do. It’s how much you gain in terms of confidence and just that feeling that 'somebody paid for this trip, this conference that I’m doing, instead of me having to pay out of my pocket. Somebody trusted me enough and thinks it’s worth investing in me.’ ”

Chaudhuri also established the first McNair alumni motivational speaking panel. The panel consisted of four previous UW-Eau Claire McNair scholars, including three current UW-Eau Claire professors. Current participants in the program submitted questions to be discussed at the panel.

"The entire idea is to start this as a tradition, do it once a semester, so it helps me build that McNair alumni network," Chaudhuri said. "It helps me keep up my communication with past scholars, but also brings them back to the university to motivate the current scholars.”

Chaudhuri also is setting up writing workshops for the scholars through UW-Eau Claire's Center for Writing Excellence, and next fall, students will attend a presentation by a motivational speaker in Wisconsin Dells with other McNair scholars from around Wisconsin. Chaudhuri also is preparing a financial literacy workshop in collaboration with Wells Fargo and Royal Credit Union.

Chaudhuri said she hopes to increase the visibility of the McNair program on campus, reaching out to as many students as possible.

 “With every passing week, I’m finding out more and more about how an ideal McNair program should be run, and I’m trying to reach that point where it’s more of a motivational, inspirational support program," Chaudhuri said. "Not a program that adds to the content workload of scholars, but is there to motivate them and be with them, hold their hand, all the way to graduate school and even beyond. And I would just like everyone to know that this program is here to support scholars, support faculty. But at the same time, we need faculty support, without whom we probably would vanish overnight.”

 Photo caption: Dr. Sanjukta Chaudhuri is the director of UW-Eau Claire's Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.