St. Olaf College | News

McNair Scholars Program helps students succeed far beyond St. Olaf

Portrait of Essa Mohamed wearing a lab coat in a laboratory.
Essa Mohamed ’09 in a lab at Mayo Clinic, where he earned his Ph.D. and is now a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct instructor in the Biomedical Sciences School. Photo courtesy of Mayo Clinic

Many St. Olaf College graduates pursue advanced degrees to become innovative professionals and researchers in their chosen fields of study. Essa Mohamed ’09 is no exception. A biology and sociology/anthropology major at St. Olaf, Mohamed went on to get his Ph.D. at Mayo Clinic, where he is now a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct instructor in the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. 

While pursuing his Ph.D., Mohamed conducted research on liver disease and its disparate effects on racial and ethnic minority groups. His findings have helped contribute to the World Health Organization’s decision to prioritize hepatitis at a global level and helped Mayo Clinic change its patient screening practices for viral hepatitis. This year, the Bush Foundation named Mohamed as one of its 24 Bush Fellows — leaders who receive funding for projects that will enact change within their communities. As a Bush Fellow, Mohamed will further his goal of creating “a system in which the participation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials and medical device development is increased.” 

Mohamed has undoubtedly achieved success in his career and continues to enact positive change. However, when he first arrived at St. Olaf as a first-generation college student, he wasn’t so certain about his career path or how to get there.

“The first few years at St. Olaf were not clear for me. I had a lot of questions of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be,” Mohamed says. 

Partway through his time at St. Olaf, Mohamed was able to secure the resources and support he needed through the TRIO McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf. The TRIO McNair 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 and Carleton.

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 B.A., 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. Nationally, there are 158 McNair programs working with over 4,400 low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented undergraduate students.

Mohamed was part of St. Olaf’s first McNair cohort in 2007. Since then, the St. Olaf McNair program has served 152 students, 60 percent of whom are enrolled in or have completed graduate school. TRIO McNair alumni have gone on to pursue and complete graduate and professional school, becoming doctors, professors, social workers, non-profit managers, physical therapists, lab technologists, counselors, statisticians, public health researchers, musicians, lawyers, and counselors. 

Screen shot of TRIO McNair Scholars on a Zoom call.
McNair summer 2020 researchers meet over a Zoom call with Director of the TRIO McNair Scholars Program Janis Johnson (top row, center), Associate Director Melissa Melgar ’04 (top row, second from left), and Associate Professor of Biology Jean Porterfield (top row, left), who instructs the summer research writing course.

In addition to Mohamed, many recent McNair Scholars have gone on to achieve great accomplishments in their doctoral work. Bashir Ali ’20 earned a prestigious three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support his doctoral work in ecology, evolution, and marine biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. Barite Gutama ’17, who was one of just 12 college students from across the country selected to conduct cancer research in 2016 through the Northwestern University Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (CURE) program, is now a medical student at the University of Minnesota.

Portrait of Emily Hynes (left) and Aaron Harcus (right) with an open door in the background.
Emily Hynes ’18 (left) and Aaron Harcus ’11

McNair alumni also connect with and support each other after graduation. Aaron Harcus ’11 earned a Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf and his Ph.D in music theory from CUNY Graduate Center in 2017, and is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Emily Hynes ’18, who earned a Bachelor of Music degree cum laude from St. Olaf, is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in musicology at UNC Chapel Hill — where Harcus was her professor in her first year!

The McNair program is important to first-generation college students — who currently make up 75 percent of the students in the program — in that it provides one-on-one academic and personal advising to help them navigate their way through college, connect to resources that they may be unaware of, and assist them in setting and reaching professional and academic goals that they may not have originally considered. The program also reinforces the unique skills and experiences that they bring to their field.

Ultimately, we want the McNair Scholars to complete their B.A. and envision themselves as the next generation of scientists, graduate students, and Ph.D. recipients.TRIO McNair Scholars Program Director Janis Johnson

“Numerous research studies have shown that meaningful connections on campus help to increase student retention rates; mitigate the academic, professional, and social challenges faced by many first-generation TRIO students; and increase their sense of belonging in the college community. We focus on building a supportive cohort within the McNair program,” says Johnson. “Ultimately, we want the McNair Scholars to complete their B.A. and envision themselves as the next generation of scientists, graduate students, and Ph.D. recipients.” 

Screenshot of an online poster presentation over Zoom, with the poster on the left and student presenters in a column on the right.
McNair Scholar Lori Tran ’21 (third from top) and her summer 2020 research team present their findings with their research advisor, Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Benson (third from bottom).

First-generation students often start their undergraduate experience at a different point than other students at St. Olaf. They do not always know anyone close to them who has completed a four-year degree, and they may have attended under-resourced schools in areas with high poverty rates and high drop-out rates. As a result, first-generation students at St. Olaf face unique challenges of which other students and professors may be unaware. Some first-generation college students grew up in families where their first language was not English. In addition, family obligations might require them to devote time to assisting their family, or they might work long hours or extra jobs to help their family financially. Family obligations might mean that they are off campus for extended periods of time. The adaptation to the rigors of a St. Olaf education may take a little longer, and it may take first-generation students longer to determine a career path and major, especially as they learn to manage their time with competing obligations.

The McNair program helps first-generation students meet these challenges. The program assists students beginning in their sophomore year with gaining high-quality summer internships and research experiences, presenting at national conferences, and developing faculty relationships. The program also helps students improve their writing skills, access support and resources, build a strong network, and advocate for themselves. 

“McNair Scholars work very hard and demonstrate intense dedication towards completing their degree. Even though our students encounter unique barriers to pursuing and completing higher education, they go on to thrive in graduate school and make significant contributions in a variety of professions,” says Melgar.  

In addition to the program’s direct support, McNair Scholars also partner with faculty members for research and career-building opportunities. Faculty and staff refer students to apply for the program; serve as mentors, panelists, and guest speakers; and reach out to recruit McNair Scholars to participate on their summer research teams. McNair Scholars who complete research develop strong relationships with their faculty mentors who can advocate for them, provide recommendation letters, and guide students in choosing appropriate graduate school programs. Faculty members also invite McNair Scholars to publish with them and to present the results of their research at professional conferences. To date, 68 St. Olaf faculty members have served as research mentors to McNair Scholars.

I was part of the McNair Scholars Program, which enabled me to be in Dr. Beussman’s analytical chemistry laboratory. During the summer of my junior year, I was able to see how the scientific process was established and ways we could continue to apply the skills we were taught in our biology and chemistry courses. This was an instrumental experience, which led to my first manuscript publication.Essa Mohamed ’09

As a McNair Scholar, Mohamed gained the opportunity to conduct research in Professor of Chemistry Douglas Beussman’s analytical chemistry laboratory, an experience that helped ignite his passion for biomedical science. “I was able to see how the scientific process was established and ways we could continue to apply the skills we were taught in our biology and chemistry courses. This was an instrumental experience that led to my first manuscript publication,” Mohamed says. 

Ultimately, the McNair program aims to provide support that extends beyond students’ graduation from St. Olaf and that will prepare them for graduate school and whatever career path they choose. In Mohamed’s case, the continued support was evident, and culminated in Johnson and Melgar attending his Ph.D. defense. “I was humbled by their presence and support!” he says.

The St. Olaf community participated in many events and activities during First-Generation College Celebration week from November 2-6. The celebration aimed to increase awareness of challenges faced by first-generation individuals and also ensured that their contributions are valued, respected, and supported. The week-long celebration built awareness and pride of the assets and skills that first-generation faculty, staff, and students bring to St. Olaf. For more information about first-generation college students, faculty, and staff, visit St. Olaf’s first-generation website

Learn more about the first-generation leaders who make up the staff and faculty of St. Olaf College on St. Olaf News.