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Stretching their wings

Psychology Department Chair Robert Gatchel reads with Ellen Terry

For her McNair Scholars research project, Ellen Terry studied chronic spinal disorders under Psychology Department Chair Robert Gatchel.


llen Terry knows how to beat the odds. The psychology senior grew up with limited opportunities in a poor neighborhood in Belize City, Belize. Her mother didn't finish high school, and Ellen never knew her father.

"My family wasn't financially stable," she said.

Not many Belizean families are. According to the CIA World Factbook, the small Caribbean nation has the highest unemployment in Central America, with more than a third of its citizens living in poverty.

Terry came to the United States in 2000, joined the Army a year later and spent 13 months deployed in Kuwait and Iraq. In April 2004, a roadside bomb blew up a five-ton cargo truck carrying her, a driver and one other passenger. The man in the middle-their Iraqi interpreter-was killed.

Terry was going to sit in that seat but at the last minute switched places with the interpreter. "It was so dark, I couldn't see the damage to his body. I'm sure it was pretty bad."

The soft-spoken veteran received a Purple Heart for lacerations and shrapnel wounds suffered in the blast. After her discharge from the Army, she sought a more affordable locale than California to pursue a college degree. She chose UT Arlington and was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program in February 2007.

Named for the astronaut who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, the federally funded program prepares promising students from low-income/first-generation or underrepresented backgrounds to become professors. An integral component is a summer-long research project alongside a faculty mentor.

Terry studied people with chronic spinal disorders under the supervision of Psychology Department Chair Robert Gatchel, one of the world's foremost authorities on chronic pain management. She'll graduate in August and begin a clinical psychology doctoral program at Tulsa University in the fall.

I know firsthand how gifted McNair Scholars are. Two have worked for the Office of University Publications. One, Camille Rogers ('07 BS), wrote the article on page 30. She's now pursuing a master's degree in life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin.

Dr. McNair would be proud of scholars like Terry and Rogers and the hundreds of others whose academic careers his namesake program has helped launch. He overcame similar hardships. Born and raised in a small town in segregated South Carolina, he received a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became one of the first African-Americans to travel in space.

"I believe that in our urban and rural cities there are great minds and talents that must not be wasted," he said. "Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them. You're eagles. Stretch your wings and fly to the sky."

Graduates of UT Arlington's McNair Scholars Program are doing just that.

Letters to the editor: utamagazine@uta.edu

— Mark Permenter

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