Trinity University is probably not the first place you would look for first-generation college students. The small, private, liberal arts school represents the kind of higher educational opportunity many first-generation, low-income students see as out-of-reach.

In fact, while college enrollment is becoming a more common topic in low-income homes and schools, graduate work and careers in academia may still seem impractical.

“A Ph.D. seemed like a luxury,” Maria Olalde said.

Olalde will graduate from Trinity this month as one of the school’s nine McNair Scholars in the class of 2017. She plans to take a gap year to work with RAICES, a nonprofit that offers shelter and legal services to immigrants. In the fall she would like to pursue a research position with Children’s Hospital of San Antonio or possibly work with Advise Texas, helping students in underserved high schools think strategically about college. Throughout the gap year, Olalde wants to figure out exactly which application of her anthropology major to pursue in her Ph.D. research.

What once seemed like a luxury could become a reality: Ultimately, Olalde wants to become a professor. If and when she does, she will fulfill the mission of the McNair scholars program to “make the landscape of the academy look more like the students it serves,” said Teresa Morrison, associate director of Trinity’s McNair Scholars Program.

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program is one of eight U.S. Department of Education initiatives aimed at improving education prospects for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, together known as TRIO. Upward Bound was the first of these programs, established in 1964 as part of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.

Over the decades TRIO grew to include Talent Search, Student Support Services, and other iterations of Upward Bound. In 1986, the Department of Education began a new program aimed at supporting first-generation and low-income college students as they pursued careers in research and academia. The program was established in honor of African American scientist Ronald McNair who died aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986. McNair was the second black person to go into space.

Trinity’s program is funded to serve 25 students since 2007, and every year the number of applicants has risen.

“Trinity has been on a mission to recruit first-gen[eration] and low-income students,” Morrison said.

The University of Texas at San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake University, and St. Mary’s University also have McNair programs, each serving 25 students per year. All three programs have seen students fulfill the purpose of the program by going into academic careers.

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget eliminates $193 million to TRIO and GEAR UP, another initiative to get disadvantaged students into college. Those cuts would cripple the programs and hamper efforts to bridge the achievement gap between middle class and low-income students.

In addition to financial barriers and depressed access to college preparatory courses, minority and low-income students face social barriers as well. When these students enter the academy, they often feel as though they do no belong among their more privileged peers.

“They don’t see anyone who has faced similar challenges in their lives,” Morrison said.

That feeling of being somewhere by mistake, or the fear or being found to be inferior to classmates is called imposter syndrome, and the McNair program aims to strengthen students’ confidence as well as their academic achievement. McNair scholars are not only told that they can pursue academic careers, but that they are valuable assets to the field.

Daniel Large.
Daniel Large. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Doing a Ph.D. seemed like an extravagant risk, but McNair sort of socialized me to the idea that it’s important for students from underrepresented backgrounds to conduct research,” Daniel Large said. “This realization helped build my confidence not only in pursuing a research career, but also in how important it is to society that individuals like myself not be dissuaded from pursuing research.”

Large graduated from Trinity with a degree in psychology and Spanish in 2009. He had always loved science, but growing up it had been presented to him as a more abstract prerequisite for graduation and not much more. 

“When I was at Trinity and I realized that science was something people could actually do as a career, I was hooked,” he said. 

Large is working with the Edwards Aquifer Authority as a habitat conservation coordinator and is headed to Cornell University in the fall to begin work on his Ph.D. The McNair program convinced him that diversity in the academy wasn’t just about equal opportunities for individual researchers, but about the advancement of scientific discovery. Encouraging diverse perspectives in the science workforce can lead to insights and breakthroughs by challenging mainstream assumptions that might have created a blind spot. 

McNair scholars don’t fit an easy assortment of demographic checkboxes: they represent the many intersections of background, gender, race, and sexual orientation that make up the United States. As more of those students find their way into college classrooms, it is fitting that they should see the same diversity in front of the classroom.

As a male with a European last name, Large wasn’t initially sure he met the diversity requirements for McNair. With help from a professor, he realized he qualified for McNair through his status a first-generation college student from a low-income background. “I had never identified with this profile, or realized how being first-generation/low-income differentiated my experience from the average person pursuing a research career,” he said.

“Not being particularly sheltered growing up, and witnessing the precariousness that many face due to social and economic disadvantages are experiences that have provided me with insight and sensitivity that I now bring to my work. They also drive me to engage with social problems through my research endeavors and my professional interactions.”

“The end goal is to make an academy that looks like the population,” Trinity’s McNair Program Director Kelly Lyons said.

Megan Medrano, class of 2017, plans to double down on diversity in the academy. Not only will she, a first-generation college student Latina from a low-income household, be pursuing a Ph.D. at Arizona State University, she will be in a pioneering field as well. Medrano has been accepted into the second cohort of Ph.D. candidates in ASU’s transborder studies program. She will study the cultural processes of Latina artists across various mediums, as well as their lack of representation in the visual arts.

Megan Medrano.
Megan Medrano. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A communication major with a minor in economics, Medrano discovered her passion for the subject during a summer internship with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. “That is what really pushed me into this area,” Medrano said.

The McNair program emphasizes internships and research opportunities throughout the undergraduate experience. At a spring banquet, the Trinity McNair scholars celebrated their upcoming summer research projects. Some would stay at Trinity for ongoing research with their current mentors, while others were headed to New York City and Europe to work with research teams. In addition to valuable experience, students gain access to mentors and scholars who can point them toward grants, programs, and opportunities that fit their interests.

Unlike many of their classmates, most McNair scholars can’t ask their parents for advice, because they are forging a new path. Like Olalde, Medrano’s parents were supportive, even if that simply meant cheerleading while their daughter pursued unfamiliar dreams.

“My education is a really big thing for my parents,” Medrano said.

They sent her to Yes Prep, a college preparatory charter school in Houston, where Medrano grew up. There she learned about academic opportunities beyond college.

“I have known that I wanted to go to grad school since middle school,” she said.

While Medrano contemplated graduate school, other students face pressure to quickly get into fields where they can begin making money to support themselves and their family, Lyons said. Most parents, however, are very supportive. They are thankful for resources like the TRIO programs that can provide information, scholarships, and mentoring.

Olalde’s father grew up in Mexico and never attended formal schooling. Her mother made it to high school. When Olalde became involved in Upward Bound and began to make her Ivy League dreams known, her parents were proud of her for daring to apply. Her high achieving mindset was something they had worked hard to instill.

“They trusted me,” Olalde said.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.