Meaningful work = McNair

By Lynn Curry, CMU McNair Director

I just returned to the frozen tundra (aka Michigan) from the sunny campus of the University of Central Florida after attending a wonderful gathering of fellow McNair Directors from around the country. I’m all jived up on the energy from this meeting and I’m determined to keep that feeling front + center in my mind’s eye to carry me through the year. You see, I’ve been a part of this McNair community for nearly 15 years now and it never ceases to amaze me how wonderful + supportive folks are as we work toward our shared McNair Mission. This mission entails empowering students coming from some pretty challenging backgrounds and supporting them in their journeys through higher education.

This takes shape in a multitude of different ways, but the common denominator is really two things: the sheer determination + ability of our students to thrive and our loving encouragement + deep belief that they can absolutely achieve great heights.

Just this morning I was texting back and forth with our program assistant about two of our scholars, one still in process at CMU and another in the first-year of her Ph.D. program. Both of these young women are making strides in pursuing their passion despite facing some pretty substantial challenges on the home front. Not only do our students manage to bust a move with their academics, but they do so while juggling research, the intense pressure to hold down part-time (often bordering on full-time) jobs just to get through, and dealing with friends and family who sometimes have trouble understanding their drive and determination toward their education.

Both of these women are feeling called toward the path of research, this they cannot deny. Simultaneously, they are stripping away barriers, often super personal + painful in nature, in order to keep moving forward in their studies. I can *feel* their excitement when they speak about their work and this tells me that they are on the right path. McNair is helping students make that transition into higher education, but it takes a lot more than just that to actually obtain that education and create meaningful work from it. I’m hopeful the foundation we help establish while we have our scholars in undergrad will continue to expand, support + sustain.

Sitting among fellow McNair directors and hearing them share about their own experiences working with McNair scholars makes me believe that this work is having a significant impact with our students. It also underscores my appreciation for this community of people intent on empowering our students and doing whatever it takes to make that happen. This work goes beyond helping scholars craft personal statements and studying for the GRE. It requires empathy, openness toward personal growth and a deep belief in the resiliency of our students.

Hearing my McNair colleagues want to better themselves (and their programs) so that they can better their students makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. One of my core desired feelings in life is connection. Feeling connected to the McNair community as well as the growing community of McNair scholars endeavoring toward their Ph.D., and those who have already attained their doctorate and are now doing the work, makes this “job” deeply satisfying + meaningful on so many levels.

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McNair community coming together for the success of our students.

I want to personally thank Michael Aldarondo-Jeffries, Director of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Central Florida and “mover and shaker” when it comes to all things McNair, for hosting an ultra-productive + engaging second annual Promising Practices Institute for our McNair community. Creating such an event is A LOT OF WORK and I know we all deeply appreciate it.

The truth is, we have a shared appreciation and language when it comes to the work we do with our students. Having an opportunity to engage with one another, brainstorm solutions on some of the challenges we face and dialogue about what’s working is priceless and so needed. I can’t believe almost fifteen years have passed since I began this McNair journey. I can believe, however, that I’m looking forward to as many more years as possible with this special group of people.

Here’s to continuing this important work in the next grant cycle + beyond.

lmc xo

It goes pretty fast.

Scholar post: Laura Warner, 2014 McNair Scholar

This month we got to meet the new scholars. While meeting them, I couldn’t help thinking how fast my year with McNair had gone. During my cohort’s orientation in December 2013, I remember thinking that I had a long road ahead. In truth, I did have a lot of work ahead of me. Even just writing “December 2013” made me feel like orientation was a long time ago. Having completed my summer research and helped welcome a new cohort, I now feel as if that year was half as long as I expected.

Laura

Laura at the Color Run in Lansing this past summer!

I was so excited to begin McNair. I remember liking the group from the start and getting along with everyone. I also felt like a huge VIP getting all the McNair bags and shirts. I remember feeling very unused to the kind of special treatment with which McNair graces its cohorts. I appreciated the experiences that I gained through McNair—experiences that I would not have had the opportunity to take part in, had it not been for the program. These experiences served two main purposes. The first was so that we could have fun bonding with our cohort and experiencing new things. The second was so that we would not be utterly shocked when people outside our comfortable little nest at CMU started treating us like professionals.

This became apparent to me when I visited the University of Rochester in New York. I certainly didn’t feel like a ”big deal” when I got accepted into the visitation program. During the visit, however, I began to realize that the group of students selected for the program was carefully chosen. We had things that our program faculty wanted, and they were pulling out all the stops to make us want to attend their school. It took a little getting used to, but I realized that McNair had prepared me for exactly this type of situation—one where a student has a lot of control or is being treated like a valuable professional. I felt very able to navigate my visit there and speak to the faculty with confidence.

To the incoming scholars, I would offer some simple, but very important advice. First of all, pick a project that you love and that is relevant to your future graduate program/career. I chose a project that was not completely tailored to my interests, and my graduate school search has definitely taken a hit because of it. The words “no relevant experience” seem to haunt my rejection emails. If I could go back, I would definitely pick a different project. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I was not entirely aware of the types of graduate programs I would be applying for currently. Some faculty will understand this, but competitive programs will often not. So, even when someone tells you that any experience is good, I would argue that relevant experience is what takes you from applicant to assistantship.

My other piece of advice is to pick a mentor that matches your interests, working style, and personality. This can be difficult, especially because McNair mentors aren’t always people that you were familiar with ahead of time. However, I think it is crucial to find these things out ahead of time. Don’t just pick a mentor because you like them, when their research interests don’t match yours at all. Conversely, don’t choose a mentor that you do not think you can get along with, even if their research is everything you’ve ever dreamed of. This goes for your McNair project, and any other research project for the rest of your life. You are going to be spending an inordinate amount of time with these people, trust me. You want to be able to ask them for guidance, and you need to know that their teaching style meshes with your learning style. Otherwise, your project could be severely hampered by lack of communication and cooperation. Don’t worry, even if everything imaginable goes wrong with your research project, I promise it will still be an invaluable learning experience that will build a strong foundation for your career.

[end of new scholar advice rant] :)

I am realizing now that McNair is not an experience that simply ends once a new cohort takes your place. It is a part of your life that stays with you long after it has prepared you for a professional career path. I am grateful to have made this experience a part of my identity—to have taken every opportunity that was offered to me. In the future, I know I will always have my McNair family to lean back on and my McNair experiences to guide me through life.