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McNair program preps TRiO students for grad school

By Claire Carlson '12
July 12, 2010

After completing high school, Fatima Omar '11 wasn't sure that she wanted to go straight to college, and pursuing education beyond a bachelor's degree seemed unthinkable.

Fatima Omar '11 transcribes an interview for the summer research project she's conducting through the TRiO McNair Scholars Program.

Yet with the support of St. Olaf College's TRiO McNair Scholars Program, today she's well on her way to degrees in sociology/anthropology and American racial and multicultural studies. She's also making plans to attend graduate school, and is spending the summer conducting an independent research project in cultural anthropology — the field she hopes to pursue as a career.

The summer research project is one of the most important components of the TRiO McNair program, providing participants with a valuable hands-on learning experience. For her project, Omar is researching relations between African American and Somali college students in an effort to understand the miscommunication that often occurs between the two populations. It's a reality that is widely acknowledged but rarely talked about, Omar says, and her research resonated with those she interviewed. Several of her research participants even plan to attend the poster presentation she and the other St. Olaf TRiO McNair Scholars will deliver at the University of Minnesota at the end of July. "I knew this was a hot topic, but I didn't realize how much they wanted to be involved," she says.

Omar is one of nine Oles participating in research internships this summer as part of the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. Named after a pioneering African American astronaut, the goal of this national program is to increase the attainment of Ph.D.s by first-generation students and students from underrepresented segments of society. The TRiO McNair Scholars Program is one of eight programs that makes up TRiO, a federal umbrella organization with a mission to serve low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students from middle school through postbaccalaureate programs. St. Olaf sponsors three TRiO programs and a related program, GEAR UP.

Since 2007 the St. Olaf TRiO McNair Scholars Program has been working to make graduate school a reality for 27 Oles each year. McNair Scholar selection begins sophomore year and includes an application, essay, and interview. Once accepted, students attend workshops, graduate school fairs, and goal-setting meetings. The summers after sophomore and junior years are spent in academic internships and research positions.

The summer research project that follows junior year is a crucial stage of the program. For the project, McNair scholars are paired with St. Olaf faculty members who guide their reading, experiments, interviews, and analysis. While conducting their research, the scholars are also enrolled in a tuition-free research writing course held on campus while they continue to prepare for graduate school.

McNair Scholar Zach Hylton '11 is interested in pursuing a graduate degree in international development, and is working with Associate Professor of Political Science J. Patrick Dale. He's researching corruption and the consolidation of the rule of law in Romania and Bulgaria, and gaining valuable experience and motivation for graduate school. "The McNair program really has helped me understand that this is something that I want and something that is possible," Hylton says.

Throughout the entire process, students receive support and mentorship from program director Janis Johnson and academic advisor Melissa Hinderscheit '04. "For them to believe in me was huge," Omar says. "I didn't even believe in myself, and they did."

Johnson became involved with TRiO in 1977, and she successfully co-wrote the proposal for a St. Olaf McNair Scholars program in 2007. Hinderscheit first became involved as a participant herself and knows firsthand the opportunities the program presents. "I strongly believe in the benefits that TRiO programs provide for students," she says.

Summer Learning
Summers provide enriching experiences for McNair scholars, with internships and research projects that afford hands-on learning. With interests ranging from the American Revolution to HIV/AIDS research to politics in Bulgaria and Romania, the scholars have also had diverse research and internship experiences.

Last summer Anne LaRoche '11 interned in Washington, D.C., for the Council for Opportunity in Education. "These are the people that have been creating the program that has been helping me so much, so it really hits home," she says.

Already this summer, the students' research opportunities have proven to be just as powerful. Working with Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald and Assistant Professor of History Abdulai Iddrisu, Omar interviewed 18 African American and Somali college students. After painstakingly transcribing her interviewees' accounts word-for-word, Omar's hard work is paying off. She is excited and encouraged by similarities she sees emerging in many of the responses, noting that many of her subjects cited education as a viable way to integrate the two distinct communities.

Hylton spends nearly eight hours a day reading and taking notes. He admits that the work can be draining, but also acknowledges the benefits. "You learn so much about managing work and reading effectively, and you can apply these skills in so many different ways," he says.

LaRoche is also obtaining these skills, but perhaps in a more amusing way. This summer she's assisting Professor of History Jim Farrell in his research of "the history of fun," reading many of the sources he used while writing a book on the subject.

Like many McNair Scholars, Quyen Duong '11 hopes to use her future Ph.D. to teach at the college level. Duong is working with Assistant Professor of Education and Mathematics Sharon Lane-Getaz, looking at how students learn the statistical skill of inference.

Despite their diverse backgrounds and academic pursuits, the scholars share common academic goals and a sense of appreciation for the program. As Fisihatsion Gebreyesus '11 notes, "Without TRiO, I would not be here as a college student finishing my bachelor degree in mathematics and chemistry, and planning to attend graduate school to pursue my dreams."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or