The McNair Scholars Program arrived on campus in 1996 with the goal of giving underrepresented students the opportunity to achieve an advanced degree in their field of study. For two CSULB scholars, the program was the first step toward joining the faculty.
Kagba Suaray, who earned his bachelor’s degree in math from CSULB in 1999, joined the Mathematics and Statistics Department as an assistant professor in 2005. Hannah-Hanh Nguyen, who received her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2000, joined the Psychology Department in 2006.
The McNair Scholars Program is named in honor of the late Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and includes Saturday workshops during the fall and spring semesters, a six-week workshop during the summer and a one-week preparation for the GRE–the test needed to get into graduate school.
Nguyen, who went on to receive her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Michigan State University, the latter in 2006, saw the program as a way to reach out beyond her own discipline.
“With the McNair program, I had the chance to talk with students from different departments,” she said. “I learned about their research which was very interesting. The McNair program is recognized nationally so I had a chance to travel and present at conferences. I had more opportunities to do research.”
The training not only includes what is needed to help obtain information needed for a research project but also choosing the proper topic and finding financial aid. Students are awarded a cash stipend for summer research and students who qualify also live on campus for free during their summer sessions.
Suaray, who lives on campus with his wife Niki as part of the faculty-in-residence program, went on to earn his doctorate in math from UC San Diego in 2004.
He knew he wanted to learn more about math from the minute he arrived on campus as a 15-year-old freshman in January 1995.
“One of the things the McNair program does is answer questions about graduate school such as how to apply and what it is about,” he explained. “It demystifies the whole notion of continuing your education past your bachelor’s. I saw I could focus on math, do research and possibly contribute to the field. I liked the idea of teaching at the university level. The McNair program opened that up to me.”
Unlike other scholarship programs, McNair focuses on academic research. Students work with a faculty research mentor.
“Most of the McNair scholars come from underprivileged backgrounds and a mentor is there to give them support,” said Nguyen. “I continued my association with the McNair program at Michigan State where I served as a graduate student mentor to several ethnic minority students. It was good because it gave me a chance to give back something.”
Suaray’s advice to anyone considering the McNair program is to be sure they have a passion for their subject. “Passion, if properly harnessed, can bring joy to a person. But if that passion is constantly frustrated, then it will have the opposite effect. If you really like what you’re doing, you‘re a prime candidate for the McNair program,” said Suaray. “Also, if a person knows if he or she wants to pursue a doctoral degree, I would tell them that the McNair program is for them because it will give them everything they need. It will give them a deeper understanding of what they’re getting into and a confidence that they will be competitive.”