“A Leap of Imagination”

IUP has always been a place of opportunity. A century ago, students left farms for Indiana Normal School and careers as teachers. Students of later years were often the first in their families to go beyond high school.

The McNair Scholars Program is the next logical step. Identifying undergraduates of high academic promise from low-income, first-generation backgrounds and underrepresented groups, it aims them toward doctoral degrees.

The federally funded program honors the memory of Ronald McNair, an African American Ph.D. in Physics from MIT who, as a NASA astronaut, died in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. IUP has one of only four McNair programs in Pennsylvania—the others are at Penn State, Penn, and Temple. Nationwide, there are about 170.

Calvin Masilela and McNair Scholars

Left to right, foreground: Luz Rodriguez and Franklin Tinsley; background: Matthew Fedinick, Calvin Masilela, and Edward Brown

One of the twenty scholars supported by IUP’s program is Franklin Tinsley from West Philadelphia, a senior in Criminology. “McNair has opened up a lot of doors,” he said. “Graduate school always seemed like such a different place with different terminology.”

Every McNair program has a summer program for its scholars. At IUP’s six-week research institute, from mid-May to the end of June, each scholar explores a research topic of his or her choosing.  By the end of the six weeks, each is ready to present his or her ideas at a daylong seminar.

Some go even farther to present. Luz Rodriguez, a senior Spanish major in her thirties, recently spoke at a conference in Puerto Rico. Two other IUP scholars were invited to showcase their work at last summer’s Tenth Annual Ronald E. McNair Research Conference at Niagara Falls.

Rodriguez spent thirteen years in the military; now, she aspires to earn a Ph.D. “Professors motivate students,” she said. In her case, faculty member Marveta Ryan-Sams recommended the McNair program. “I was lucky,” Rodriguez said.

With identity theft as his current research interest, Tinsley hopes to focus on computer fraud while he does graduate work in criminal justice. He is also relying on guidance from the McNair program in finding just the right internship.

“Our kids can stand up against anybody,” Masilela said. “They are that good.”

“Before McNair, there was nothing funded by the federal government that targeted post baccalaureate degrees,” according to Calvin Masilela, program director and faculty member in the Department of Geography and Regional Planning. The U.S. Department of Education inaugurated McNair with fourteen pilot sites in 1989. 

“Funding is reviewed for each site every four years and is based on performance,” Masilela said. “As long as a university meets its target, it retains its funding.” IUP’s program currently receives $220,000 a year.

In addition to the IUP McNair summer program, enrichment opportunities offered include museums, operas, and cultural experiences. Last summer, the scholars explored the nation’s heritage in Washington, D.C., as they also visited graduate schools and George Washington and Howard universities.

Each scholar selects an academic mentor in his or her discipline. These mentors play, Masilela said, “a critical role throughout the year, as the students work on their research proposals.” Soon, IUP will have its own McNair journal to exhibit the results of the students’ research.

“Going to graduate school can be scary,” Masilela said, “especially if you don’t have role models to follow. What we’re trying to provide is a leap of imagination.”

At IUP, according to Masilela, “McNair students come from all backgrounds, from rural to urban.” At this time, all are Pennsylvanians. “Our kids can stand up against anybody,” Masilela said. “They are that good.”

Matthew Fedinick is a junior from Indiana with a double major in International Studies and Religious Studies. He is examining, as his research interest, religious themes in video games. “McNair has given me the determination to go ahead and continue to graduate school,” he said.

Help in preparing for the Graduate Record Examination is another facet of McNair’s assistance, as is finding assistantships and fellowships for graduate school. Both are critical in the eyes of Edward Brown, who, as a high school student, benefited from Talent Search, a federal endeavor similar to McNair. Masilela said that the first program “motivated Eddie to seek a college education upon graduating from high school.”

Brown’s research topic focuses on retention issues of African American male students at IUP. A junior Sociology major from Reading, he wants to earn a master’s degree in social work and to work with children. “Talent Search and the McNair program,” he said, “have given me a window of opportunity to bigger and better things. This is my ticket to graduate school.”