November 19, 2012

Federal Grant Will Fund Cornell University Mentor Program

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Starting in Spring 2013, Cornell will use a $220,000 federal grant to help minority undergraduate students who aspire to attend graduate school prepare for doctorate programs.

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education, which has given 194 institutions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico grants to provide students with mentors. Under the initiative, called the McNair Scholars Program, Cornell hopes to mentor about 15 sophomores and 10 juniors each year, according to A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity initiatives.

The program intends to help “low-income individuals, first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities to progress through post-baccalaureate studies,” according to Barbara Knuth, vice provost and dean of the graduate school. Miller said there are about 400 students in each class who will be the first person in their family to attain a bachelor’s degree.

Knuth said that statistics show there is a disproportionately small percentage of racial minorities enrolled in higher education programs.

To help combat this trend, the McNair Scholars Program gives students stipends to pursue research over two summers support to conduct research during Cornell’s academic year and funding to cover fees for graduate school applications, campus visits and interviews for Ph.D. programs, according to Miller.

Ulysses Smith ’13, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Assembly, said the McNair program seems like a “promising” effort to help underrepresented students pursue graduate school.

“The number of minority individuals who obtain Ph.D.’s is much lower than [the rate for the] majority [of] students,” Smith said. “Part of the goal of this program is to increase the number of people who have the opportunity.”

Smith said that the networking aspect of the program — which establishes relationships between students and faculty mentors — could be especially effective in aiding underrepresented students.

“It’s difficult a lot of times for underrepresented students to overcome particular social or structural barriers,” Smith said. “The goal of this program is to start you off during your undergraduate years so that you can take these seminars … They set you up with faculty advisors, they set you up with individuals who are interested in what you want to research. It’s a great start.”

In addition to helping students connect with professors, the McNair program aims to bring a larger scope of diversity into the graduate and doctorate spheres, according to Miller.

“By bringing in a wider range of life experience and varied perspectives to those who pursue Ph.D.’s, the McNair program directly stimulates the production of knowledge and the vibrancy and resilience of overall intellectual activity in all sorts of academic fields,” Miller said. “We all understand our world better when we know it from more angles. Having the program on our campus means that Cornell is doing its part to stretch the boundaries of exposure and thinking, making everyone’s education richer.”

Smith said he is eager to see how initiatives such as the McNair Scholars Program — along with other diversity-related efforts — will shape the future of education.

“Diversity is something that is very difficult to define,” Smith said. “I think something that we understand is that in an educational institution, it is greatly important to have a full range of ideas … I think we could easily see quite a few more different programs like McNair start here, grow here.”

By increasing the diversity of students in graduate schools, the program may also lead to a stronger presence of underrepresented professors at colleges across the U.S., Miller said.

“The program is meant to build and diversify the pipeline for faculty for the nation,” Miller said. “Cornell is a major source of Ph.D. scholars for the world. Since Cornell has benefited from receiving graduate students who have been in McNair programs, it is great for us to produce such students.”

Original Author: Noah Rankin