My palms were sweaty, my stomach uneasy and my body overwhelmed with nerves. I had printed my speech with 14-point font text, double-spaced, and had cues to stop for audience responses – just as I had learned when I was an undergraduate McNair researcher. I had returned to the McNair Scholars program as an alum to give the next generation of scholars a keynote address, which I titled, “Was it worth it?: A Two-sided tale to the PhD.”
My first words to them were, “As long as I have been doing this, I am always nervous, but the skills I have learned from this program have carried me through every stage of the PhD and beyond. You must always remember that once you are McNair, you will always be McNair. If there is one thing I learned from this program, is to always pay it forward.”
The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program is under the umbrella of the Federal TRIO Programs. The McNair Program identifies first-generation, low-income and/or underrepresented undergraduates who have strong academic potential to participate in research and other scholarly activities in preparation to apply to doctoral studies. When I interviewed for the program as an undergraduate, the last question that was asked of me was: Who was Ronald E. McNair? I remember it like it was yesterday because I did not know, but that day forward I would know forever.
Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair was an accomplished physicist who received his Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He was a leading expert in the field of laser physics, and in 1978 was selected to become a NASA astronaut. He was the second African-American to fly in space. Unfortunately, he was assigned to the U.S. Challenger mission and was killed when it exploded after it launched. After his death, the program was created as a dedication to the high academic achievement he demonstrated and to diversify the professoriate.
In 2017, the Trump Administration for the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal called for a 10-percent cut in funding for TRIO programs and the elimination of the McNair program entirely. Of course, this did not go without a fight. Across the nation, beneficiaries of TRIO organized a TRIO advocacy day to present arguments at Capitol Hill as to why these programs should continue to be funded.
As I provided my keynote address and reflected on what the McNair program has meant to me, I was left with the idea of was the PhD worth it? I think as underrepresented students, we often contemplate our pure existence in higher education with variations of “worth.” Worth in the context of investment in our economic advancement and stability in the future for not only us, but for our families. Is the research we are engaged in of any worth to our respective fields or communities we wish to serve? Is our presence in institutions of higher education of worth to the department, graduate school or overall university?
I have come to realize that for myself, I must define my own worth, what is worthy of my time and the story I want to tell. For me, the McNair program has always served as a home away from home, especially when I moved out of state, have yet to return and am not sure I ever will. At every institution I have attended or worked for, there has been a McNair connection.
As a graduate student, I regularly encountered another McNair scholar in a different program, same class, or faculty member. I also dedicated most of my graduate school years to working for two McNair programs that exposed me to the bright minds of our future. As the students I mentored graduated and entered their respective Ph.D. programs, it made it worth it because I contributed to their success. When I finished my Ph.D. and entered my postdoctoral fellowship, I worked two years alongside another McNair alum. We often sat on panels, networked and made great connections with undergraduate students who were McNair or aspired to be.
Now as an entering first-year, tenure-track faculty member, I am certain I will find a McNair alum, serve as a mentor for the McNair program and help produce future generations of scholars. As the McNair program is constantly at risk of being eliminated, we cannot forget that this would mean the erasure of Ronald’s McNair legacy. After all, it was McNair who stated: “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.”
I am McNair, and I am a proud beneficiary of Ronald Erwin McNair’s legacy. It was worth it.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of Higher Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia