Program offers mentorship for students’ bright futures

V. Paul

Amid the colors of paintings and sculptures at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum hung 23 research posters — out of place except for the fact they symbolized their authors’ first steps toward a higher education. The students presented their summer session research projects yesterday to about 150 people, including Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn.
These students participated in the TRIO McNair Scholars Program, a General College program that prepares low-income, minority, disabled or first-generation college students for graduate studies.
These factors prevent some students from continuing their education beyond secondary school. Students from families earning less than $23,000 per year have an 8 percent chance of earning a degree before they turn 24, compared with a 56 percent chance for students from families earning $68,000, said Bruce Schelske, a General College program director.
“Because of the support I got from TRIO, it’s helped me to know I can succeed and I can get there,” said Kristina Quan, a College of Liberal Arts junior. “There are obstacles to being a minority student and being low-income.”
Scholars from the University’s Twin Cities and Morris campuses, as well as scholars from the University of CaliforniaBerkeley and other area colleges presented their projects, marking the end of the 10-week program.
The $1.5 million TRIO program, which houses the McNair program, received a commitment for another four years of government funding starting in October. Because of the current tax-cut debate, however, the amount of annual funding the program would receive is up in the air.
“The Labor, Health and Human Services bill (which includes TRIO’s funding) is more or less being held hostage until the negotiations are over,” Schelske said.
Sabo wandered among the presenters asking questions of the students. This is the fourth time he has attended the event in five years. Program officials credit Sabo with much of the federal support programs such as McNair receive.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of TRIO,” Sabo said. “The more we can improve the program, the better.”
Each of the program participants chose or were assigned a University faculty member as a mentor for the research project. Some students pursued their own projects while others took part in research which their mentors were already immersed.
CLA junior Denese Shelton worked with Daniel Wackman, a journalism professor, on two projects studying the effects of political commercials on voters.
As an English major, Shelton was not interested in the media, but said she was glad to learn research skills she could use in future projects. To Shelton, this program marks a first step toward dentistry. Her sister, who studied political science, was the first in the family to earn a degree.
“It was inspiring for me to see her,” Shelton said. “My mom now has her associate’s degree. Everybody is stepping up, so it’s pretty cool.”
Brian Johnson, a graduate student in biostatistics, is a two-time participant in the McNair program. His first experience with the program as an undergraduate in 1992 encouraged him to follow his interest in statistics even though previous advisers tried to dissuade him from math.
“At one point, you recognize the wall before you and you go elsewhere,” Johnson said. “It was really wonderful to have people around with similar backgrounds and to have the support system that says, ‘This guy can do the math and will do the math and let him do what he likes.'”
This kind of encouragement motivates students to strive for goals that might otherwise be out of reach because of social or cultural barriers. McNair also channels students’ efforts toward careers in education.
Andrea Richardson, a University of Minnesota-Morris senior, focused her project on whether 20 historically-black colleges had support programs for students who are also parents. After 10 weeks of research, she developed a model that universities could use to upgrade their support for student-parents. She gained a clearer vision of her academic goals as well.
“A lot of times if you feel you’re not getting something good out of something, you have to go look for it, not to wait for it to be handed to your face,” Richardson said. “I’ve gone (to look for) this experience.”