University of Minnesota

Jump-starting student research

The U’s McNair Scholars program prepares students to enter graduate and Ph.D. programs.

July 30, 2014

When Amber Jones arrived at the University of Minnesota from the South Side of Chicago three years ago, her mind was set on a standard timeline.

“I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to do my four years and then I’m going to go get a job and I’m never coming back to school again,’” she laughs. “I just wanted to do my time.”

Now her sights are focused on grander goals. Jones, a senior honors student majoring in African American studies, is wrapping up her 10-week summer research apprenticeship as a McNair Scholar. Named after astronaut Ronald McNair (who died in the Challenger explosion), the scholarship is designed to get more first-generation and underrepresented college students into the pipeline for a doctoral degree.

Jones has found a field and topics that she loves, the prospect of additional research is enticing, and now she’s looking forward to doing more than just four years.

“The more I got into my major, the more I realized I really wanted to gain some research experience,” she says. “Also, when I applied and got into the Honors Program my sophomore year, I was like ‘Well, I really kind of need research experience so I can complete my senior project.’”

She also soaked up the examples set by family members. Her grandma grew up in Alabama, married, had four children, and then “powered through college,” all the while working full-time for the post office. Then she got an advanced degree and became a school principal.

And Jones’s aunt received her doctorate last fall, in her mid-50s, as “one of the last big achievements she was able to get,” Jones says. Her aunt died of a chronic illness a few months later, just as Jones was finishing her application for the McNair program.

“She was a really strong mentor to a lot of young people,” she says. “She was really nice, she was really kind, and she was always there for people. She lived a full life.”

Jones’s research is about other female leaders. She’s been studying the activism and influence of W. Gertrude Brown during the time she was the head resident of the Phyllis Wheatley settlement house in North Minneapolis. This coming year she plans to find a few other black female activists to research, “because there’s not really much written on black women’s contributions to Minnesota history,” she says.

“I wanted to try to create something by the time I graduate that not only presented me a really good experience regarding research … but that could fill some type of void or give something to this community that I’ve had a really good experience with.”

A program that maximizes potential

The McNair Scholars program not only prepares students for graduate school and beyond, “it helps them maximize their time in their last year or two of college,” says Anthony Albecker, since 2012 the director of the program who himself was a low-income, first-generation student. “As we look at trying to bolster and diversify those going on to get advanced degrees, this serves as an important pipeline for students.”

Jill Doerfler is an alumna of the McNair program and a first-generation college student. Coming from a small town, she first had to sort out what college life was like at the University of Minnesota Morris as a freshman. The next frontier was graduate school.

“The McNair program really helped flesh it out with all sorts of information,” she says, from GRE preparation and learning how to write a personal statement to creating an appropriate writing sample and figuring out which program and university were the best fit for her. “McNair empowers students to gain information to make their own choices.”

For Doerfler, that led her to a Ph.D. program in American studies at the U’s Twin Cities campus. And now she’s found a home on yet another U campus: She is currently an associate professor and the head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Jones—whose McNair mentor is Yuichiro Onishi in the Department of African American Studies—is looking at doctoral programs for history, African American studies, and American studies, and trying to figure out whether she wants to become a public historian, a professor, or something else altogether.

“I’m really grateful to be in the position where I have McNair as an anchor and all that support behind me,” she says. “And the goal is definitely the doctoral degree.”

McNair Scholars is a TRIO program funded by the United States Department of Education with support from the U’s College of Education and Human Development, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and the Office of the Vice President for Equity and Diversity. Learn more.

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