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UTA wins funding to prepare first-generation, low-income, minority undergraduates to pursue doctoral degrees

UTA Provost Teik Lim with McNair Scholars
UTA Provost Teik Lim with McNair Scholars

The University of Texas at Arlington received a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to further the efforts of the McNair Scholars program. The program assists undergraduate students who are first-generation college students, from low-income and minority populations, in continuing their education and pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees.

The federally funded McNair Scholars program was founded on the belief that neither socio-economic nor minority status should prevent someone from pursuing a career in higher education. The program is named after Ronald McNair, a NASA astronaut who was killed in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.

“We want our McNair Scholars to graduate with their bachelor’s degrees in a timely manner and go to graduate school. But we don’t want them to stop with a master’s degree,” said Joan Reinhardt, director of the McNair Scholars Program at UTA. “We want them to obtain their Ph.D. degrees and enter academia to create more diversity among those who are teaching or conducting research at the college or university level, which is a benefit for them and our country overall.”

Only 161 universities in the United States are selected to host McNair Scholars programs. The UTA chapter was established in 1990, making it one of the oldest programs in existence.

McNair Scholar Esther Ruth Kentish
McNair Scholar Esther Ruth Kentish

McNair Scholars participate in special research internships working closely with faculty mentors during their junior or senior years to expose them to the rigors and demands of graduate school.

Examples of research conducted by UTA’s McNair Scholars in just the last year include organ regeneration in snakes, music interpretation theory and cancer cell growth. McNair Scholars come from all disciplines, but there is a particular emphasis on recruiting those studying in science, technology, engineering and math.

“As a first-generation college student, I started at UTA knowing little about college and even less about graduate school,” said Arianna Gomez, a UTA senior studying psychology. “The McNair Scholars program changed everything. I would not be so sure of my future had I not been a McNair Scholar.”

Gomez is currently applying to graduate school and plans to obtain a doctorate degree.

Many graduates of UTA’s McNair Scholars program already have obtained their doctoral degrees and are now working at colleges and universities or in research posts across the country.

Padmini Veerapen earned her doctorate from UTA is currently an assistant professor of mathematics at Tennessee Tech University. Sharon Lynn Eaves is an assistant professor of psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University and Diana Cervantes is currently a faculty member at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth and also the lead epidemiologist for the Texas Department of State Health Services in Arlington.

“The McNair Scholars program at UTA allowed me to dare to believe that I might be able to go to graduate school and be successful,” Veerapen said. “As a kid growing up on the island of Mauritius, I never thought I could go this far. The UTA McNair Scholars program changed that and was a stepping stone toward all that I am now.”

Eligible students must be U.S. citizens and either a low-income and first-generation undergraduate or a member of an underrepresented group in graduate education – which means African American, Hispanic, Native American, Native Alaskan or Native Hawaiian. Scholars also must maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above. McNair Scholars are chosen after an extensive application and interview process.

UTA has received other recent recognition for offering minority students opportunities to earn degrees. In August, Diverse:  Issues in Higher Education ranked UTA as No. 1 in Texas for bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded to African-American students, No. 1 in North Texas and No. 12 in the U.S. for master’s degrees awarded to Hispanic graduate students, and No. 1 in North Texas for master’s degrees awarded to all minority students.

U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges 2018” list also ranks UTA as having the fifth highest diversity index among its student population, and the least amount of student debt for national public universities.