St. Olaf College | News

McNair Scholars Program receives grant to continue providing support for postgraduate success

Portrait of Essa Mohamed wearing a lab coat in a laboratory.
Essa Mohamed ’09

After graduating from St. Olaf College, Essa Mohamed ’09 went on to become a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct instructor at Mayo Clinic, conducting pioneering research on liver disease and its effects on African and Asian communities.

Sheridan Blanford ’15 earned her master’s degree in intercollegiate athletic leadership at the University of Washington, where she is now the associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion — one of a small number of collegiate athletics administrators in the nation to work exclusively in the area of DEI.

Sheridan Blanford '15
Sheridan Blanford ’15

Bashir Ali ’20 received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support his doctoral work at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology, with a dissertation focused on the role of the AAA-ATPase motor protein machinery in peroxisome biogenesis.

These Oles are pursuing a variety of passions, leveraging their talents and strengths to excel in their work in unique ways. But what they all have in common is that they participated in the TRIO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf. This summer the St. Olaf program was awarded a $1.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education, providing another five years of funding to propel this work forward.

Bashir Ali '20
Bashir Ali ’20

The TRIO McNair Scholars Program was founded in 1989 and initiated at St. Olaf in 2007 by its current director and associate director, Janis Johnson and Melissa Melgar ’04, to serve students at St. Olaf. 

“McNair changed my life, and I would not be where I am without the program,” Blanford says. “Janis and Melissa both saw and invested in the person they knew I could be, and created the space for me to learn, grow, and make mistakes. I am forever indebted to TRIO McNair.”

The goal of McNair is to increase the number of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students who participate in undergraduate research, graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and immediately enter and complete graduate school, with a specific focus on helping students pursue a Ph.D. The program identifies students with high academic potential and provides opportunities for students to develop skills necessary to gain admission to and complete graduate study.

The St. Olaf McNair Scholars Program has worked with over 186 students, of which 67 percent are enrolled in or have completed graduate or professional programs. Almost all have gone on to achieve success in both their academic and professional careers.

The program works to prepare students by supporting internship applications, job shadowing, scholarly activities, and research opportunities, including quality on-campus summer research and inquiry programs.

By participating in these experiences, students develop and hone professional skills, expand their social and professional network, and build confidence in the skillset that they will bring to their career and graduate program,” Johnson says.

Nominated as sophomores, McNair Scholars spend their first year in the program learning about internships and research opportunities, engaging in personal and academic counseling and workshops, and developing a “Roadmap to Graduate School.” During their junior year, scholars collaborate with a faculty mentor on a 10-week, McNair-funded, structured research internship. 

Scholars also complete a research writing course, participate in graduate school visits, prepare for graduate school admissions tests, and attend professional conferences to present their research findings. In their senior year, scholars are mentored through the application to and preparation for graduate school.

Students are supported, coached, and advised on how to create a professional network, build a strong resume, and research graduate programs and funding opportunities. McNair staff, McNair alumni, graduate school faculty, and program coordinators all form unique relationships with the scholars and play important roles in the program.

Engaged with a cohort of students from similar backgrounds in a collaborative learning environment, the scholars support and push one another to success and to pursue their goals, Johnson says.

This summer 21 McNair Scholars participated in on- and off-campus research, internships, and shadowing experiences. Scholars who stayed on campus completed a research writing course taught by Associate Professor of Biology Jean Porterfield, and presented their work at the St. Olaf Summer CURI Research Symposium

As part of this newly funded grant, more than 60 faculty from 19 departments have agreed to serve as McNair Mentors, engaging in the implementation of a holistic advising approach to support the success of and empower the McNair Scholars.

“One of the most powerful aspects of the St. Olaf McNair Program is the supportive relationships that students develop with their peers, faculty mentors, and McNair staff,” Johnson says. 

The McNair Scholars Program is one of five TRIO Programs at St. Olaf. The other programs include Student Support Services for Student with Disabilities (SSSD), Student Support Services (SSS), Upward Bound (UB), and Educational Talent Search (ETS).