Challenger anniversary brings back memories

The first thought that goes through my mind, thinking about the anniversary of the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, is where i was at the time.

i was in the third grade, if i recall correct, and i’d stayed home from school that day, more than likely due to a “sore throat.” (That was always a good go-to ailment.) i was at my grandma’s house, sitting on the living room floor watching the TV when it happened.

More recently, i’d had an opportunity to learn more about one of the astronauts on that mission: Dr. Ronald McNair. While attending Cleveland State University, i wrote a story about the McNair Scholars Program, and during research for that i was happy to find out more about the scholarship’s namesake.

Ronald_mcnair wikimedia commons

Dr. Ronald McNair

If you’d like to check out the original publication of the story, it’s still available at The Cleveland Stater website.

Or, you can read it here below under the image of the Stater page as the story originally appeared, where i’ve copied the text from my original draft for your convenience.

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The road to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is daunting.  The challenge requires a serious commitment of time, focused research, comprehensive exams, publication and completion of a journal of the dissertation.

It was a journey made in 1976 by Dr. Ronald McNair, a first-generation college student from South Carolina.  He grew up in a house without running water or electricity.  He took a stand for his civil rights at 9-years-old when he refused to leave a segregated library without his books, a library that would later be named after him.  He was a high school valedictorian who went on to become a PhD in physics.  And he was selected as one of 35 from a pool of 10,000 to become a NASA astronaut.

On his second mission, on Jan. 28, 1986, Dr. McNair was killed along with six others aboard the space shuttle Challenger after it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.

His legacy is preserved by the McNair Scholars Program, a U.S. Department of Education funded program that helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study.  The program is offered at 200 institutions across the US and Puerto Rico, including Cleveland State University.  Participants in the program are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a traditionally under-represented group in graduate education.

For students majoring in STEM disciplines, the deadline to apply is Friday, Nov. 1 this year.  On Nov. 12 there is a follow-up interview for selected applicants.

“The goal of this program is to increase the diversity of the professoriate,” explained Dr. Valli Sarveswaran, director of the McNair Scholar program at Cleveland State.  “Every college has their own diversity challenge, to increase their numbers.  That has to start somewhere, like our program.”

The McNair Scholars program launched at Cleveland State in 2008 after Dr. Sarveswaran was hired as the first director.  Prior to that, he was an administrator for an outreach program funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Notre Dame.  Through his work at universities, he came to admire the interactions that took place and bonds that formed amongst students and faculty.

“I have a PhD in chemistry and spent several years doing research,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Then I realized I started liking working with students more than chemicals.”

The program sponsors 30 students each year and takes a comprehensive approach to prepare them for doctoral studies.  Students receive support in the form of research opportunities, paid full-credit tuition for independent study, meal and housing allowances, and mentored research with a chance to present their findings at Cleveland State.  Additional research and presentation opportunities exist beyond Cleveland State’s campus, with travel expenses covered by the program.  Trips also include visits to graduate schools and professional conferences, with expenses covered by the program.

“We offer a lot,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Financially and through other support like a GRE [graduate record examination] prep course and writing courses.”

The GRE prep course is a 32-hour workshop offered in the summer.  Other workshops include effective resume building and cover letters, writing a statement of purpose, and financial guidance like how loan forgiveness works and how to pay for graduate school.

One of the current cohort of McNair Scholars is Shannon Walker, a senior environmental studies major.  She learned about the McNair program before transferring to Cleveland State, while attending Tri-C Metro.  Walker joined the program in spring 2013, and worked with Dr. Robert Simons to update the CSU Master Plan this past summer.  After the summer program ended, she was offered a position to stay on until the project is complete.

“The program’s been a great asset in facilitating opportunities and connections for all of us – especially as a first-generation college student,” Walker said in an email.  “The mentoring portion of it has been extremely valuable.”

Scholars work with both a discipline and non-discipline mentor and meet with each of them at least once a month.  The discipline mentor guides students with research projects and helps to navigate their interests and choices in graduate schools, internships and opportunities outside of Cleveland State.

Dr. Dan Simon, a professor of electrical & computer engineering at Cleveland State, became a discipline mentor at the request of Dr. Sarveswaran.  He considers a PhD important for anyone who wants to become a leader in their field.  Becoming a PhD means that you’re not only an expert in your discipline, but also that you can effectively communicate that knowledge.

“Communication is huge, and it goes both ways” said Dr. Simon.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we can’t understand what other people have done and explain it to other people then we can’t advance the state-of-the-art.  Communication is a two-way street and it’s very important for engineers, especially leaders.”

He noted two things that are vital to students of any discipline thinking about pursuing a doctorate.  The first is to maintain good grades throughout your undergraduate studies.  Second, he stressed getting involved with professional organizations.

Non-discipline mentors provide students with a faculty perspective in a more casual relationship removed from the pressures of study and research.  This mentor’s role involves teaching students what to expect as university professors and informing them of job opportunities.  And because 80 percent of McNair Scholars are first-generation college students, mentors often become a friendly refuge in what can be a challenging environment for them.

One of the McNair non-discipline mentors is Dr. Ulrich Zurcher, a professor of physics.  Dr. Zurcher got involved with the McNair program because he identified with the under-represented groups in doctorate studies.  Himself a first-generation college student in his native Switzerland, Dr. Zurcher understood that minority students can feel out of place in college.

“I’m highly motivated about this,” said Dr. Zurcher.  “When I went to college, because I’m not from an academic background I always felt excluded.  I felt I did not belong.  Minority students sometimes feel like they don’t belong, to some extent.”

Dr. Zurcher, who came from a working class family, can relate to students for whom college is a wholly unfamiliar environment.  As a non-discipline mentor he hopes to help students acclimate to college and find their niche.

Sara Al-Nimer, a senior McNair scholar double majoring in mathematics and psychology, considers the program invaluable.  She cites her mentors as well as fellow scholars and especially Dr. Sarveswaran as a wonderful support system.

“I have been fortunate to be a part of this program and I wouldn’t trade the experience, the skills or the people I have met for anything,” she said.

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