As the director of Buffalo State College’s McNair Scholars Program, Washington pours her heart into assisting limited-income, first-generation, and ethnically underrepresented undergraduates to achieve their goals of reaching graduate school and eventually doctoral study.
“It is exciting to see these students achieve their goals,” Washington said. “The odds are often against them, so when they overcome those obstacles and gain entry to grad school, it is extremely rewarding.”
Washington and her staff recently received word that those success stories will continue as the U.S. Department of Education re-funded their program for a total of $934,888 over the next four years.
The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program was initiated in 1989 to honor astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died on Jan. 28, 1986, in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. McNair, the second African American to fly in space, received a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. The program is now funded at 179 institutions across the United States and in Puerto Rico.
Under the Buffalo State project, 27 students are provided with research opportunities and faculty mentors, financial assistance, GRE preparation and guidance through the graduate school admissions process each year. Scholars also complete two paid summer research programs.
Participants, who are typically juniors and seniors, apply for the two-year program during their sophomore year. About two-thirds of accepted students are first-generation college students from low-income families, while one-third are from ethnic groups underrepresented in graduate study. In addition to demographics, applying students must maintain a 2.8 minimum grade point average, have strong potential and desire to prepare for graduate study leading to a doctoral degree, and be interested in research and college-level teaching.
“We are looking for highly motivated students who recognize the opportunities that this program can provide,” Washington said. Faculty members aid in the application process, either by passing qualified students’ names on to Washington or directly encouraging students to apply. “A lot of faculty hand-pick students, and they are extremely flattered,” Washington added.
Since the grant was reestablished at Buffalo State in 1999, the program has enrolled 81 students, 68 of whom have currently completed bachelor’s degrees. In addition, 17 have completed master’s programs, 13 are pursuing postbaccalaureate degrees, and seven are enrolled in Ph.D. programs—a number that is expected to increase by three to five this year. Students have gone on to study at institutions such as the University at Buffalo, the University of Georgia, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Howard University, the University of Michigan, and Purdue University.
Crystal Rodriguez, a 2005 McNair graduate, said the benefits of the program run far deeper than academics.
“I learned the fundamentals of research, but most importantly I learned to never limit myself,” said Rodriguez, who still keeps in touch with Washington while working on her dissertation at John Jay. “Honestly, the McNair program not only helped with graduate school, it helped me develop in life by reinforcing the importance of always being prepared. Research is unpredictable, just like life. So be prepared for curve balls and take on the new challenge with determination and excellence.”
Buffalo State first received funding for the McNair program for a short time in 1993–1994, during which two students went on to achieve doctorates. Remarkably, both are current faculty members: Kelly Frothingham, associate professor of geography and planning, and Raquel Schmidt, associate professor of exceptional education.
“McNair really did change my life,” Frothingham said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without participating in the program. Before McNair, graduate school and a Ph.D. were just not on my radar.”
Frothingham was mentored by Kimberley Irvine, professor and chair of the Geography and Planning Department. Frothingham now serves as a mentor for current McNair scholars and on the McNair Advisory Board, and has presented a variety of workshops over the years. “I enjoy the relationships you can develop with students through the research projects,” she said. “I tell my students all the time that I love my job. I also tell them that if you want a job as cool as mine, you need to get a Ph.D.”