Inaugural Baylor Scholars Ready to Soar in the Academy

Posted by on Tuesday, October 30, 2018 0:49 - 0 Comments


Baylor University’s inaugural class of McNair Scholars and staff of the program. (Robert Rogers/Baylor University)

Baylor University’s 25 inaugural McNair Scholars are ready to soar, like the program’s namesake Dr. Ronald E. McNair, a laser physicist and NASA astronaut who was inspired to work hard and persevere in his studies by his family and by a teacher who recognized and believed in his scientific potential.

Baylor is in the first year of its five-year, Department of Education-funded grant to implement the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, known as the McNair Scholars program, which prepares low-income, first-generation and/or other underrepresented students to successfully navigate a path to a Ph.D. program following graduation from Baylor. Through the Baylor McNair Scholars program, students are immersed in research and a variety of other scholarly activities, with an eventual goal of increasing graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented groups. Baylor’s grant funding will support 25-30 students each year with substantial mentoring and community building along the way.

“Baylor’s inaugural class of 25 McNair Scholars has been an extremely amazing group of students,” said Steven Fernandez, director of the McNair Scholars program, who himself was a first-generation college student at Florida International University. “They’re from diverse backgrounds, even from different academic disciplines. We have a large group of veteran students who come with abundant life experiences and students from all different ethnic backgrounds. It really works to create a cohesive community environment, and students have been able to be very supportive of each other.”

Guiding Lights

Among the benefits of being a Baylor McNair Scholar are faculty mentoring, a paid summer research internship, seminars and professional development workshops, conference travel opportunities, GRE® test preparation and graduate school application assistance. Baylor faculty who serve as mentors act as “a guiding light” for students in multiple ways, Fernandez said.

“I have faculty who mentor students through their research and the entire process from what schools to apply to, what conferences to attend, how to apply for different fellowships. Many of them have connected students to fellow faculty at other universities where they may want to attend graduate school,” Fernandez said. “It’s the definition of a mentor, of being there when the students need questions answered and being a resource for students when they’re not sure what to do. We can give them the tools here at McNair, but sometimes it’s that inspiration coming from faculty mentors that is so important for our program to be successful.”

(Read more about summer research by McNair Scholars here.)

Like Fernandez, Lakia M. Scott, Ph.D., assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the Baylor School of Education, was a first-generation college student and understands how programs like McNair identify potential in students “well beyond what they can see presently.” Scott has been involved with the Baylor McNair program from its beginning as a member of the grant-writing team. Now Scott is invested as a faculty mentor for Olivia Moses, a senior elementary education major and McNair Scholar from Arlington, Texas.

“If you would have told me early in my undergraduate career that I would have a Ph.D. and still be at an institution working and loving research, I would have thought you were crazy, because I couldn’t see beyond where I was at the time and my circumstances somehow contributed to that line of thinking,” Scott said.

This year’s Baylor McNair Scholars and their faculty mentors are:

  • Olivia Moses, Major: Elementary Education, Faculty Mentor: Lakia M. Scott, Ph.D.
  • Roberto Hernandez, Major: Management Information Systems, Faculty Mentor: Pedro M. Reyes, Ph.D.
  • Feven Iyassu, Major: Biochemistry, Faculty Mentor: Patrick J. Farmer, Ph.D.
  • Andrea Brown, Major: Accounting, Faculty Mentor: Gia Chevis, Ph.D.
  • Ryan Reynolds, Major: History, Faculty Mentor: Stephen M. Sloan, Ph.D.
  • Micah Johnson, Major: Neuroscience, Faculty Mentor: Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D.
  • Aime Hogue, Major: Political Science, Faculty Mentor: David Bridge, Ph.D.
  • Gregory Pugh, Major: Biology
  • Diamond Dominguez, Major: Clinical Laboratory Science
  • Kenneth Kyle Williams, Major: Electrical Engineering, Faculty Mentor: Mack Grady, Ph.D.
  • Treasure Ramirez, Major: Economics/Public Health, Faculty Mentor: Emily R. Smith, Ph.D.
  • Sylvia Conatser, Major: University Scholars/Russian, Faculty Mentor: Jennifer L. Good, Ph.D.
  • Joshua Robinson, Major: Biochemistry, Faculty Mentor: Daniel Romo, Ph.D.
  • Mara Fields, Major: Anthropology, Faculty Mentor: Joseph Ferraro, Ph.D.
  • Bella Mahler, Major: History, Faculty Mentor: Bracy V. Hill II, Ph.D.
  • Samantha Acosta, Major: Psychology
  • Kaleigh Reid, Major: History, Faculty Mentor: Andrea L. Turpin, Ph.D.
  • Mahlet Adugna, Major: Biology
  • Jacqueline Carroll, Major: Biology, Faculty Mentor: Bessie W. Kebaara, Ph.D.
  • Danielle Sanchez, Major: Religion
  • David Chapman, Major: Biology, Faculty Mentor: Myeongwoo Lee, Ph.D.
  • Natasha Gaitan, Major: Medical Humanities
  • Dalton Jones, Major: Psychology, Faculty Mentor: Jaime Lugo, Ph.D.
  • Alijah Pecina, Major: Corporate Communication/Business Administration, Faculty Mentor: Leslie A. Hahner, Ph.D.
  • Precious Mathis, Major: Psychology, Faculty Mentor: Melanie J. Sekeres, Ph.D.

Baylor’s McNair Scholars will have their first opportunity to present their summer research during the inaugural McNair Research Symposium from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, in the Beckham and White Rooms in the Bill Daniel Student Center.

“Research experience used to be a bonus when you were applying to graduate schools. The question was simply does this student have research? Now it’s a question of how much research does this student have?” Fernandez said. “It’s become so competitive that the process of finding a faculty mentor and doing research isn’t enough. It’s about the level of research they’re doing, presenting it to different conferences and talking thoroughly about their research and connecting with different peers and faculty across the nation about the scholarly work they’re accomplishing.”

Most graduate schools waive the application fee for McNair Scholars across the country, which can add up quickly, Fernandez said.

“Very few don’t waive the application fee, because they see the potential of these McNair Scholars, not only are they coming in with mentored research, but also because they’re students who have the qualities and grit necessary to succeed in competitive programs, such as McNair,” he said.

Helping students succeed

Applications for the next class of McNair Scholars are open on the McNair website. The deadline to apply is Nov. 28, 2018. Interest sessions are scheduled at 5 p.m. Sept. 25 (Fentress Room, SUB), Oct. 1 (Fentress Room, SUB), Oct. 18 (Lipscomb Room, SUB) and Oct. 23 (Fentress) Room, SUB).

The program also offers a Pre-McNair Academy, which provides eligible freshman, sophomore and junior students with a one-year introduction to the process of the McNair Scholars Program. Pre-McNair Academy students who participate in the required activities may be eligible for priority consideration to the McNair Scholars program, once eligible and meeting the standards for admission.

Baylor’s McNair Program substantially builds upon resources that the Paul L. Foster Success Center has been working on to support underrepresented students, said Sinda K. Vanderpool, Ph.D., associate vice provost for academic enrollment management.

“We created the Office of Student Success Initiatives where we brought together our services for first-generation students, veterans and transfer students. We are growing and coalescing substantial services to help underrepresented groups,” Vanderpool said. “We were already doing a great deal of work to support these students, and the McNair Program is a huge boost.”

Rachel Renbarger, an educational psychology doctoral student and former McNair Scholar, served on Baylor’s grant-writing team and credited the McNair Program for her success.

“Without exaggeration, McNair changed my life. I have no doubt that the program is the reason that I made it to graduate school at Baylor and have succeeded while here,” Renbarger said. “Not only did it give me the skills to become a scholar, it gave me a community to overcome the obstacles that come from having a first-generation, low-income background. It broadened my perspective, strengthened my resolve and continues to provide resources to help me navigate the world of academia. This program works.”

“Stretch your wings and fly to the sky”

Dr. Ronald McNair was born in 1950 in a low-income community in South Carolina, graduating as his high school’s valedictorian. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from North Carolina A&T State University and enrolled in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1976, at the age of 26, he earned his Ph.D. in laser physics. Because of his many accomplishments, he was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978 and became the second African American to fly in space when his first space shuttle mission launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 3, 1984. Two years later he was selected to serve as mission specialist aboard the ill-fated U.S. Challenger space shuttle. He was killed instantly when the Challenger exploded. Dr. McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

After his death, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, dedicated to the high standards of achievement inspired by Dr. McNair’s life. Their goal was to encourage low-income and first-generation college students, as well as students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups, to expand their educational opportunities by enrolling in a Ph.D. program and ultimately pursue an academic career.

Throughout his lifetime, Dr. McNair encouraged students to strive to achieve their dreams.

“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,” Dr. McNair once said.

“Programs like McNair are designed to not only allow students, who otherwise might lack the resources, to pursue their highest degree aspirations, but also allow them the opportunity to have a serious impact on the communities they come from,” Fernandez said. “I have a lot of students who return to their original alma mater because they want to give back to these universities who have given them so much and be the voice for their community.”

For more information about the Baylor McNair Scholars program, visit


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

~ Story originally posted on Baylor University News on September 13, 2018. 


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