Mike Shekari/Staff Reporter
During fall break, members of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, otherwise known as the McNair Scholars, at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus attended a McNair Scholars undergraduate research conference hosted by Florida International University in Miami. Here they presented research they conducted over the summer to their peers at other institutions and explored graduate school opportunities.
The research presentations were conducted in both oral and poster formats while being judged by experts in their respective fields: physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences.
Despite strong competition from scholars who attend other universities around the country, two of Embry-Riddle’s McNair Scholars won distinctions for the presentation of their work. Naia Butler-Craig, an aerospace engineering major, won first place for a poster presentation in the physical sciences category. Butler-Craig’s research involved work she did with CubeSats while serving as an intern at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Meanwhile, Caila DeAbreu, an engineering physics major, won third place for an oral presentation in the physical sciences category for work she did at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, where she created a database of magnetic material properties that were tested within the lab.
However, the victories for Embry-Riddle’s McNair Scholars are bittersweet because the conference was the last official action taken by the program as a federally funded TRIO program through the United States Department of Education. The program, named after the late physicist and NASA astronaut, Dr. Ronald E. McNair, helps prepare first generation, low income or underrepresented minority students for graduate school and pursuing terminal degrees. The program achieves this through mentorship, funded research and graduate school visitations, which is operated through a grant that must be reissued every five years to continue receiving government funding.
The Daytona Beach campus of Embry-Riddle has hosted the program through two complete grant cycles, ten years; however, the Department of Education elected not to renew the university’s funding for the next five-year period, which caused the program to be defunded on Oct. 1 when the 2018 fiscal year began for the federal government.
Embry-Riddle was not the only university to lose funding for their McNair Scholars Program this year; many other programs nation-wide were defunded while the Department of Education scales back on McNair and other TRIO programs that service underrepresented populations in higher education. However, the exact number of programs defunded this year is unknown because the Department of Education does not readily release the statistics.
There are many who fear that the McNair Scholars might even cease to exist in the near future due to comments made in May by the Trump administration official, Mick Mulvaney, during a White House press conference, where he stated that the McNair program was only six percent effective. However, Mulvaney could not even remember the complete name of the program he was ridiculing, describing the McNair Scholars as the “McNair Post-Baccalaureate, something, something.”
Mulvaney also fails to explain how the Department of Education arrived at the six percent figure, which is important considering the McNair Scholars program evaluates effectiveness based on long-term metrics. Program directors track to see if alumni of the program achieve a terminal degree within ten years. In the case of Embry-Riddle’s program, not even the first cohort year can be fully evaluated at this time. Among those concerned are Dr. Ashley Lear and Paula Reed, co-directors of Embry-Riddle’s McNair Scholars, and members of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.
Students who are currently members of the program will still be granted all the benefits and privileges of McNair Scholars, including the continued receipt of an internal university scholarship and the ability to graduate wearing McNair Scholars honor cords. However, the answer to the question of what happens next for the program remains unclear, including the continued employment of Paula Reed at Embry-Riddle, whose position was 100 percent funded by the McNair Scholars grant. There has been a proposal submitted to Embry-Riddle’s Office of the President to create an internal university program that will still serve the intended mission of the McNair Scholars program but start with incoming freshmen, unlike the current federal model that only involves students in their junior and senior years of undergraduate study. At the time of this writing, the status of the proposal is unknown.
However, over the past decade that the McNair Scholars Program has been at the Daytona Beach campus, the program has seen great success. According to Dr. Lear, the program has serviced 104 students, with 100 earning bachelor’s degrees, 31 their master’s, two doctoral degrees, one Ed.D., and one law degree.
Even students who are currently members of the McNair Scholars Program claim that it is critical to their success as undergraduates and candidates for graduate studies. One such student, Noel Mangual, an aerospace engineering major stated, “I feel like I found my career path thanks to the McNair Program because they encouraged me to do research and consequently I found my passion, which is design of flexible aircraft.”