Twenty years of UNT McNair Scholars

When he enrolled at UNT, Justin Litvin declared a psychology major without knowing about many of the career opportunities in the field. He thought he'd become a marriage and family counselor.

His career goals changed when he learned about the research he could conduct as a UNT McNair Scholar, and the careers he could pursue with a doctoral degree in psychology.

"I learned that a PhD opens up the door to academia, and I decided that I could teach and have a counseling practice on the side," says Litvin, who has been researching stress levels of HIV-positive adults, their perceptions about their health, and their social support through UNT's Center for Psychosocial Health Research.

Litvin is one of 246 students who have discovered their career paths in research and university teaching by participating in UNT's McNair Scholars Program during the past 20 years. In 1992, UNT became one of the first universities in Texas, and one of 68 in the nation, to receive a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to establish an office and staff members for what was then called the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. The grant also provided UNT with stipends for high-achieving undergraduates to work on research projects with faculty mentors.

Named after NASA's second African-American astronaut -- who was among the seven astronauts killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger -- McNair Scholars Programs are now at 159 universities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The programs are designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. McNair participants are either the first in their families to attend a college or university and have financial need, or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education. All students selected for the program must have demonstrated strong academic potential.

More than a summer job in research

Diana Elrod, McNair Scholars Program director, says UNT's program is the most intensive of the four different program models in the U.S. because UNT's scholars do research with their faculty mentors all year long.

"Many programs offer students research opportunities only during the summer, and bring students to their campuses from other universities," she says. "But we're privileged to receive additional funds from UNT to add to the summer research stipends, so students are paid to work on their research for 10 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters."

UNT's McNair program also pays for its scholars to take a summer course on research techniques, and provides travel money for students to present their research at professional conferences.

"We know it's not common for universities to provide additional funding for McNair programs," Elrod says. "The support that our program is receiving from faculty, administrators and staff is beyond compare."

UNT senior biological sciences major Matthew Mendoza says attending UNT and becoming a McNair Scholar were life-changing experiences for him. He is the first person in his family to attend college.

"Without the reinforcement from Dr. Elrod, I don't think I would have continued in college. McNair has allowed me to focus on academics, develop a more professional demeanor and gave me the direction I needed. I'm humbled to be part of such a great program," he says.

Encouragement from faculty

In 2012, UNT's McNair program became part of the Honors College, although students do not have to be in the college to be considered for McNair. Many Honors College faculty encourage promising students in their non-Honors classes to apply for the McNair program as well as the Honors College.

Psychology major Kayla Martinez was in the McNair program for three semesters before she applied and was accepted to the Honors College. She says both the program and the college have prepared her for a doctoral program in counseling psychology.

"I've received the opportunity to not only do my own research, but also go to conferences," says Martinez, who studies the psychology of revenge with Adriel Boals, associate professor of psychology. She has presented her research at Honors College Scholars' Day and the annual convention of the Southwestern Psychological Association Convention.

Celeste Graham, a history major, was introduced to another McNair scholar by Jennifer Jensen Wallach, assistant professor of history, when Graham was in Wallach's class. Graham became a McNair Scholar during the 2011 fall semester, "I knew that I wanted to eventually earn a PhD in history of African studies, but I didn't understand the level of research that I would have to do in graduate school," says Graham, who has researched African-American women from 1957 to 1973, and how their style of dress and physical appearance were political statements. Her research mentors are Wallach, Beverly Davenport, assistant professor of anthropology; and Jessica Strubel, assistant professor of merchandising

Practice for professional conferences

Graham will join the rest of UNT's McNair Scholars, and McNair Scholars from universities around the U.S. at the Texas National McNair Scholars Research Conference at UNT Feb. 15-17. The conference has been hosted by UNT's McNair program annually for 13 years.

Approximately 125 students will present their research and be evaluated by UNT faculty members. Students receive positive, rather than competitive feedback about how they presented their data, Elrod says.

"We give scholars a welcoming atmosphere to gain experience in research presentations. It's especially important for students at smaller universities, which may not have the funding to send students to professional conferences," she said. "The conference also gives them a chance to network with their peers, whom they may see in graduate school."

In addition to the research presentations, the conference features a banquet with a keynote speaker. This year's speaker is Dr. Sylvester J. Gates, a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Past speakers have included UNT McNair Program alumni who have become accomplished in their fields. Seventy-five percent of the alumni entered graduate programs, well above the 57 percent of alumni from all other McNair programs. More than 20 percent of UNT's alumni have earned doctoral degrees, above the national percentage of 10.1 percent for the population served by McNair programs.

UNT's McNair alumni have received many nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, including National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, Harry S. Truman Scholarships, Jacob K. Javits Fellowships and Morris K. Udall Scholarships.

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