McNair Scholars Immersed in Groundbreaking Summer Research with Faculty Mentors
Students with a goal of attaining a Ph.D. receive a faculty mentor, work on an independent research projects over the summer
by Liesbeth Powers, student newswriter
WACO, Texas (Sept. 13, 2018) – Ryan Reynolds graduated from high school in 2005, at which time he was accepted into both the University of Oregon and University of San Francisco.
“I was an emancipated minor, so I had no idea how I was going to pay for school or survive. Not only would I need loans, but I would also need to support myself in terms of living expenses and food,” Reynolds said.
He decided to go to community college, which was still a struggle, and eventually joined the military.
“I realized the upward mobility that the military offers in terms of a career but also education benefits with the GI Bill,” Reynolds said. “My goal was always to serve my time in the military, which is something I also wanted to do, and then use those benefits to go to college and continue on the upswing.”
After being stationed at Fort Hood, Reynolds was encouraged by a friend to visit Baylor University. After meeting with individuals from the history department and the Veterans of Baylor student organization, he decided to come to Baylor.
“Baylor definitely felt like home and it had this great veteran’s program and it wasn’t insanely large, which is good for me,” said Reynolds, a senior history major from Killeen, Texas. “It’s one of those things where you just knew there was this connection.”
It was Reynolds’ involvement with Veterans of Baylor that gave him the chance to learn about the Baylor McNair Scholars program. The Veterans Lounge is located in the basement of the Sid Richardson Building and in the same space as the McNair offices, where he happened to have a deep conversation one day with the program’s coordinator.
“She asked me if I was interested in a Ph.D., and I said yes,” Reynolds said. “She gave me a brochure and told me about the McNair Scholars program and I thought, ‘There has to be some catch,’ because they do a lot for you in terms of free GRE prep, they pay for graduate school applications, the summer research is paid by a stipend, and they do a lot of different workshops and help get you into graduate school. When I found out there wasn’t a catch, I applied.”
In 2017, Baylor was awarded an annual grant for five years to implement the McNair Scholars program, which prepares first-generation, low-income and/or underrepresented students to achieve their goal of attaining a doctoral degree. Among other benefits, the program provides students with faculty mentors, research and scholarly opportunities, free GRE prep and assistance with graduate school applications, professional and academic conferences and summer research internships with stipends.
(Read more about Baylor McNair Scholars in the feature, “‘An Amazing Group of Students’ - Inaugural Baylor McNair Scholars Ready to Soar in the Academy.”)
More than 150 other schools feature the program, funded by the Department of Education, providing Baylor McNair Scholars a broad network of nationwide resources and support. The McNair program honors Dr. Ronald McNair and was instituted by Congress after the NASA astronaut’s death in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
Opportunity for faculty-mentored research
Students involved in the McNair Scholars program are incredibly high-caliber students and have conducted groundbreaking research over the summer, said Steven Fernandez, director of the McNair Scholars program at Baylor.
“Research is one of the pivotal portions of the program, and by that we emphasize mentor research in particular,” Fernandez said. “It is central to our work with our students. One of the key components is connecting them with that faculty mentor and having them work one-on-one not only on their research, but on the process of developing their research skills and developing possibly a publishable product and research that they can present at conferences across the United States.”
Aside from mentorship, students also are highly involved with a professional development workshop series, which is managed through the McNair program, Fernandez said.
“Students learn everything from how to apply for graduate school, personal statement writing and presentation skills, and we even bring in university panels from across the country to meet and talk to our students about graduate school,” Fernandez said. “With programs like this, students are able to create a level playing field for them to succeed. These are students who are extremely smart and have the potential. They just lack the resources and networks to be able to connect with a lot of these opportunities.”
The inaugural class of Baylor McNair Scholars will present their research at the McNair Research Symposium from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, in the Beckham and White rooms at the Bill Daniel Student Center. The symposium also provides an opportunity for interested students to learn more about the program, Fernandez said.
For his summer research, Reynolds decided to focus on the Philippine Insurrection, specifically American Pacification efforts, and how they served as a gateway into the 20th century militarism. As a veteran, Reynolds is naturally drawn to military history.
“I was trying to find a conflict that not a lot of people talk about or read and write about,” Reynolds said. “Very few people talk about these small wars that really contributed to this buildup of America as a military superpower.”
Although Reynolds settled on a specific war, the possibilities are plentiful when it comes to deciding on a thesis.
“I have eight different articles I could publish about this subject,” Reynolds said. “I feel like there was a latent use of violence, and America focused more on welfare programs in their warfare strategy. That is unheard of for an imperialist power at the time, to not just use violence indiscriminately.”
Reynolds’ research will continue past the parameters of his summer project. He hopes to publish his research and has plans to attend conferences throughout the fall semester to present his work. Additionally, his paper will serve as a writing sample for graduate school, where Reynolds hopes to continue studying military history.
Reynolds is part of Baylor’s first cohort of McNair Scholars, and many, like him, are seniors. Current seniors are tasked with summer research, GRE preparation, applying to 10 graduate programs with at least five of those being doctoral programs and to potentially reach out to professors at those schools.
“It definitely pushes you,” Reynolds said. “I want to go to grad school, I want to reach that summit. If you make it work for you and you are driven and motivated, you can really accomplish a lot through this program.”
Improving media literacy
Olivia Moses, senior elementary education major and McNair Scholar from Arlington, Texas, spent her summer working with children at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom School, a seven-week summer literacy enrichment program led by Lakia Scott, Ph.D., assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in Baylor’s School of Education. Scott also helped write the grant for Baylor’s McNair program, was part of the interview committee for leadership roles within McNair and has been designated as a McNair mentor.
“I was very excited to take part in the creation of the program because I know that it is advantageous for students,” Scott said. “The greatest thing that I can envision for this program would be offering students this opportunity to see potential well beyond what they can see presently. For example, I’m a first generation college graduate. 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.”
Moses has been working with Scott on her thesis since last fall. Both have similar interests and the opportunity to have Moses’ research take place at the Freedom School seemed fitting.
“There has been a light that has come on with Olivia, and I think that this is synonymous with every McNair student’s experience, they envision a project and think it is a worthwhile endeavor. They actually begin working on it, and they realize it is so within their scope because they have all the tools they need to succeed in discovering or investigating that problem,” Scott said.
Moses tested the media literacy skills of middle school students by engaging them in a series of activities surrounding “Megamind,” a computer-animated superhero film.
“Media literacy is the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct media messages,” Moses said. “A common example is with news sources and being able to tell if they’re credible. I don’t think that is particularly relatable to younger audiences, so my research is bringing in media they are actually interested in so that when it comes to actually looking at news, they will have those skills.”
Moses gained an interest in the subject after watching animated movies with her younger siblings. There was a larger age gap between herself and her brother, and she found herself wondering if he could pick up on the larger issues in the films.
“Are children able to interact with media and separate the line between fact and fiction and be able to take on some form of responsibility for what they are consuming?” Moses said. “When it comes to issues of representation or promoted values, I want them to understand that it is actively happening. The values and the plot and the end message are very purposeful, and I think removing the veil that this was actively created is one of my goals.”
Moses found herself enjoying research this summer and looks forward to continuing on that path.
“It’s exciting to think about cultivating new knowledge, especially because there isn’t a lot of media literacy literature on animated films and children’s pop culture,” Moses said.
Moses was one of the final students to be accepted into the Baylor McNair Scholars program. She waited until she was sure that graduate school was the best path for her.
“I finally made my mind up about graduate school and I remembered being upset that the McNair deadline had passed, but then they reopened applications,” Moses said. “I was planning to do this research either way because it is for my honors thesis, but I think hearing more about what graduate school could be and the bigger picture helped me see the progression of my academic career.”
With the McNair program, Moses finds herself looking at life differently. Internships are more than they were before, and anything can be a tool for the classroom.
“I’m constantly thinking, ‘Okay how can I bring my research into my class now?’” Moses said. “It’s helping me think bigger on what my academic work is leading to. It’s about how this is benefiting me and how what I am interested in benefits the students.”
Summer research on and off campus
In addition to conducting faculty-mentored summer research on the Baylor campus, McNair Scholars are able to spend the summer at other universities. Diamond A. Dominguez, a senior biology major from Conroe, Texas, participated in an outside summer research program under a faculty mentor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, while Roberto F. Hernandez, a senior management information systems major from Pflugerville, Texas, spent 10 weeks of the summer at Michigan State University working on research for their Summer Research Opportunities Program, as part of an existing partnership with the Baylor McNair program.
Hernandez focused his research on the effects of the Summer Business Institute, a week-long, live-in program to help freshmen transition into college. MSU is one of a number of universities that partner with the Baylor McNair program, providing students with an opportunity to participate in research opportunities off of the Baylor campus.
“Our initial research was led by the idea that MSU has summer programs that focus on minorities and helping them transition into university,” Hernandez said. “Everyone who moves from high school to college has a GPA drop, but minorities have a bigger drop than other students. We wanted to see if there was a connection or a positive impact with these programs. If so, we can inform the universities and let them know that these programs are helpful.”
Additionally, he wanted to research other factors that affect GPA, including the two most pressing factors, SAT and high school GPA.
“These programs are focused on minorities, but that is not necessarily what we want to do overall,” Hernandez said. “I want to be able to look at all of the programs that help people transition into college because there is such a change in the economy where we have different types of jobs,” Hernandez said. “We can’t have the majority of our population be unskilled workers because we don’t have as many manufacturing jobs. We want to focus on people who have a higher chance of failing because of all these other factors.”
Technology and humanity
Hernandez made the decision to focus on research methods for the summer in anticipation of graduate school, where he plans to continue his research by exploring artificial intelligence.
“If you are trying to get into a Ph.D. program, the biggest factor is how much experience you have doing research,” Hernandez said. “They will know if you have a better idea of what you are going into. A lot of people don’t know what a doctorate takes, but people who have done research previously know exactly what it takes because that is all it is.”
Since a young age, Hernandez has been fascinated by merging technology with humanity. Although it started as a childhood wish to be a cyborg, it has since grown into an understanding of how artificial intelligence can shape the business world.
“There are a lot of business decisions that have so many negative effects on the planet that we don’t consider,” Hernandez said. “We might have a boardroom of 20 people thinking about how it can affect the world, but if our main focus is how much money we can make, then the other stuff is not important enough to worry about first. When you have a machine that can run millions of scenarios, it can give you a better idea of what your actual effect is going to be.”
College was not originally in the books for Hernandez. Although he wanted to pursue higher education, circumstances led him to joining the Army instead. He served for 12 years, became a sergeant and was deployed three times before being injured.
“Even when I came back from the Army and started going to school, my main goal was to just get a bachelors and then go from there,” Hernandez said. “It had been such a long time that I didn't really know how hard it was going to be. I wanted to assess myself first and see where I stood in terms of education and for lack of a better term, see if I was smart enough.”
Being accepted to the Baylor McNair Scholars program gave Hernandez a boost of confidence and encouragement to pursue more education.
“I’ve thought about going to graduate school before, but only on the good weeks when you get all A’s. After that, you leave it alone,” Hernandez said. “Because of McNair, I’ve been looking at schools and having a better idea of my potential path. It brings to light how much better my life would be if I actually pursued what I want to do. If they believe in me, then it’s that much easier to believe in myself too.”
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
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.