University will also celebrate first-generation students on Nov. 8

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded St. Mary’s University a more than $1.3 million grant to increase the number of historically underrepresented students earning undergraduate degrees, enrolling in graduate programs and earning Ph.D.s.

The five-year, $1,309,020 grant funds the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program at St. Mary’s. The program provides opportunities for research, summer internships and seminars to prepare students for doctoral study. The program also includes tutoring, academic counseling and activities to assist participants in securing admission and financial assistance for graduate programs.

In one example of supporting these students, the McNair Scholars Program has partnered with another St. Mary’s program to celebrate First-Generation College Day on Nov. 8.

“Across the nation, only 3% of people earn Ph.D.s and, even today in 2022, there’s a strong skew toward white males,” said Jennifer Zwahr-Castro, Ph.D., who will oversee the grant as the Director of the McNair Scholars Program. “In a few areas, we see historically marginalized communities gaining access, but we still are not seeing this across the board. The McNair Scholars Program is designed to provide services and information to drive diversity, equality and inclusion in the attainment of doctoral degrees and the professoriate.”

The McNair Scholars Program at St. Mary’s provides for 25 students at a time to have a mentor in their area of study; a summer research internship with a stipend for room and board; and seminars on topics such as financial literacy, critical thinking, completing a graduate application, research presentation skills, and professional attire and speaking.

“The McNair Scholars Program is designed to provide services and information to drive diversity, equality and inclusion in the attainment of doctoral degrees and the professoriate.”

Jennifer Zwahr-Castro, Ph.D.

One of the drivers of inequality is family history, such as being the first in a family to go to college, said Zwahr-Castro, who is also a Professor of Psychology and was a first-generation student. Two-thirds of McNair students are from low-income or first-generation backgrounds. Another one-third of students identify with traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Hispanic, African American and native populations.

“The McNair Program seeks to provide a community that supports students who don’t come with generational knowledge about how to navigate higher education or with generational wealth,” Zwahr-Castro said. “We’re trying to put graduate school on the radar and ensure students have the same opportunities and an equal playing field.”

St. Mary’s to celebrate the first-generation student experience on Tuesday, Nov. 8

Senior Kayla Garcia of Weslaco said that she would be tackling graduate school applications alone without the McNair Scholars Program. Instead, the Accounting major and Environmental Science minor has found support at St. Mary’s that she likened to “walking blindly to my destination before McNair arrived with a bicycle and map.” She said the added support “expedited the process and provided guidance and direction for the journey ahead.”

“As a first-generation, Mexican American student from the Rio Grande Valley, pursuing higher education wasn’t presented to us as a potential vocation,” Garcia said. “Graduating with a baccalaureate or associate degree was an accomplishment on its own! Our program provided the support I needed by introducing me to a cohort of passionate individuals, caring staff and mentors; and by sharing valuable advice in weekly workshops and research opportunities.”

For students like Garcia, the First-Generation College Day Celebration, led by AMP (Achieving Maximum Potential)/TRiO Student Support Services, will include a lunch and photography exhibit capturing the first-generation experience from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, in the University Center, Conference Room B.

“The McNair Scholars Program has helped me in many ways that I could have never imagined — providing an opportunity for me to have access to resources such as GRE preparation, stipends, research, publications and more,” said senior Joel Reyna, a first-generation student from San Antonio who is majoring in Psychology and minoring in Biology. “This experience has been super beneficial to my academics and has helped me become more organized in school and life. Without the program, I wouldn’t have considered pursuing a Ph.D. Now, I feel the sky is the limit.”

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