Mention the name Brook Colley (’07) around the SOU campus and students reply with delight, quickly sharing stories of her warmth, approachability and whip-smart lectures.
After graduating SOU with degrees in sociology and political science, Colley attended the University of California-Davis, where she received her doctorate in Native American Studies. She returned to SOU in fall 2015 as a fully minted assistant professor.
Colley says the McNair Program at SOU changed the course of her life.
“I never thought I would go to college, then when I was here at college, I thought at best I’d get a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “Even though both my parents have graduate degrees, I had other challenges that made it seem unlikely that I would pursue an advanced degree.”
The beginning of a journey
While at SOU, one of Colley’s instructors noticed her academic curiosity and suggested she apply to the McNair Program.
“We talked about Ronald E. McNair,” Colley said. “I remember being in first or second grade and watching the Challenger incident happen. When I learned more about McNair, I was inspired by him, by the fact that he did more than forward his own professional development. He also spoke to others and asked for advocacy and support from the social institutions themselves in order to bring everyone up. That kind of community responsibility was already part of my ethics, but the McNair Program gave me a concrete way to apply this thinking to my education and career.”
Colley was accepted into the McNair Program and started in 2006.
“I came in with a great cohort of students; we had a lot of social justice-oriented community advocates in our group,” she said. “We learned about everything from how to dress for a university interview to how to ask for strong letters of recommendation.
“We had this terrific group of mentors who supported us on every front. I learned so much, and I use that knowledge even now as a teacher and mentor.”
Colley said the McNair Program makes moving through the unfamiliar landscape of universities somewhat easier. “McNair helps you recognize your own potential and all the ways you can negotiate the best path to the future you want,” she said.
McNair program paves path for doctoral candidates
“Our McNair scholars are an amazing group of students,” said Dee Southard, Ph.D., the director of SOU’s Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. “They go on to Ivy League schools, they win national awards, and they give back to their communities. It’s a joy working with these students.”
The McNair Program is a federal TRIO program funded at 151 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. The program, Southard said, offers a pathway to increase the number of doctorate holders from groups who are in financial need, or who are traditionally underrepresented in graduate schools.
“McNair graduates are an example of what people can achieve when given the opportunity,” she said.
Eligible students who enter the program are given the academic support they need to enter graduate programs in their chosen discipline. The success rate of McNair scholars is impressive.
“Generally, half the people who get into a Ph.D. program will drop out,” Southard said. “But McNair scholars who are admitted into a doctoral program are significantly more likely to complete a Ph.D.”
The program is named for astronaut Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D., who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. McNair was an African-American scientist nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. Growing up in segregated South Carolina, he overcame a childhood of crushing poverty and discrimination to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“McNair was the second African-American astronaut in space, and he orbited the planet 122 times,” Southard said. “He was very dedicated to encouraging young people to pursue higher education.”
Southard and faculty mentors work to prepare qualified undergraduates for entrance into Ph.D. programs in their chosen fields of study. They receive GRE preparation, study research methods and learn how to write research proposals. By the end of the program, students are motivated, independent researchers with work published in the program’s scholarly journal.
“We encourage them to apply to outside summer research internships, and they often get what they go after,” Southard said.
The support and preparation pays off for the students.
“A majority of our students are accepted on their first application to graduate school,” Southard said. “When they receive those graduate school offers it makes an indescribable difference in their lives. It’s a joy.”
Over the past decade, SOU’s McNair scholars have had great success. Ninety percent have either completed a graduate degree or are currently attending a graduate-level program.
“I’m so proud of our graduates,” Southard said. “Right now we have 44 McNair alumni in graduate programs, and 59 graduate degrees completed by our alumni.”
A bulletin board in the McNair office is filled with postcards from McNair graduates studying or working nationally and internationally. Southard points out cards from Washington, D.C., Hawaii, China, and Australia.
“One of the things I enjoy as a McNair director is that I stay in touch with these students, and that is very rewarding,” Southard said.
Reprinted from the Spring 2016 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine