McNair Alum Illuminate the Graduate School Experience

What a joy to see the faces of 6 former EWU McNair Scholars all on the same screen this summer! As a part of the culminating weeks of our intensive McNair Summer Research Internship that includes daily graduate school application and preparation seminars, these brilliant alumni joined us to share their insights and experiences as first generation, low-income, and racially underrepresented students who are in their first years of their journey to attain a PhD. Presenting at the panel were: 2nd year PhD student Christina Hudson, studying Africology and African American Studies at Temple University, 2nd year PhD student Lucia Roussa, studying Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University in Raleigh; 3rd year PhD students Alexis Guizar-Diaz studying Sociology at Portland State University, Theresa Lee studying Sociology at Bowling Greene State University, and Aulane Mpouli studying Chemistry at Duke University, as well as recent Masters in Counseling graduate from Arizona State University Lizeth Bañuelos.

As per usual with McNair Scholars, they all have been up to amazing things. Alexis successfully defended his Master’s in Sociology along the way to getting his PhD and Theresa will defend her Master’s thesis this fall. Most of the group were involved in the graduate student unions or organizations within their schools, with Temple University’s graduate students successfully striking for over a month and getting significant pay increases for students. Christina Hudson presented at two prestigious opportunities in her first year of graduate school: at a university in the country of Columbia and the Molefi Kete Asante Institute, a think-tank named for the most published African American scholar, and an educational and transformative non-profit 501(c)3 organization focused on Afrocentric research. Lucia’s first quarter of grad school in 2022 involved jumping onto a month-long marine science cruise down the East Coast doing extensive field work. She noted that the hard skills she gained in lab techniques and research processes through McNair, EWU’s Biology and Environmental Science degrees, and her summer research internship via UW, CICOES, and NOAA were invaluable. Lizeth’s second year focused on practicum and working towards being a Licensed Mental Health Professional.

All of the students agreed that one of the largest recommendations for succeeding in graduate school was building community – including seeking out mentorship, finding friendships with others in their programs and graduate students more broadly, getting involved in community or school organizations, and staying in touch with family and friends back home – if only via a meme a day! They also acknowledged something that most underrepresented scholars feel: imposter syndrome. This often shows up as doubting oneself or that you belong in higher education. They all have learned to recognize these feelings and thoughts when they arise and then find strategies to persevere and coach themselves forward. Christina noted a motivational phrase she uses: “Even when it looks like I’m losing I’m winning.” Lizeth corroborated that in reflecting on receiving a lot of “no’s” or getting waitlisted by PhD programs when she originally applied in Fall 2020, saying that these were actually a blessing. By going to a Master’s program instead (she was accepted by 3), she allowed herself time to build her confidence and skills and feels truly ready to tackle her PhD. To further prepare for her PhD she will spend the next few years working in the field to gain practical experience and perspective before diving back into research. She will be co-presenting research with her ASU peers at the National Latinx Psychological Association Conference in Chicago later this October.

Many of these graduate students also described the true challenges of graduate school life. Aulane talked about working in her lab Monday through Saturday and then going in Sunday evenings to prep for the next week until an older graduate student told her she shouldn’t be in the lab on weekends to preserve her well-being. When Aulane got to a point of burnout in the second semester of her second year, furiously preparing for exams that would determine if she could continue onto the PhD track (sometimes called comprehensive or preliminary exams, which she passed!) on top of her regular coursework, she found that she had to ground herself in the “Why,” reminding herself of the joy and passion she has for the research she is pursuing. She also found that she had to accept she could only take in so much and had to trust the process and know that she’d be stronger in some areas than others with regards to her exams. All of the scholars echoed this approach of working against perfectionism. In Christina’s second semester, she allowed herself more time and space to take a break or just get something done vs. making it the most brilliant paper ever and this gave her the balance she needed to be happy and actually get the most out of her classes. Theresa noted that graduate professors understand that you don’t always have time to read every word of every paper assigned and that you can use the reading strategies taught in McNair to get what you need from your reading. Lizeth shared that building relationships with faculty and advisors is also critical because then you can ask for support or an extension on an assignment if you need it and that most often they are willing to be gracious.

Of course the alumni each spent some time encouraging our current scholars. “Remember that when you’re in graduate school,” Alexis said, “You’ve been accepted. You’re already good enough!” When coaching the scholars on this upcoming period where they’ll be applying to graduate school fall quarter on top of their regular classes and finishing research projects, as well as the subsequent months where they will have to wait to hear back from all the schools they applied to and find themselves in limbo about their immediate future, Lucia said, “It will happen. You’re taking all of the steps.”

EWU McNair is so proud of our amazing alumni and we extend our thanks to all of the EWU faculty mentors who help to make the McNair experience one that truly prepare scholars for success in graduate school. Each McNair Scholar is connected to an EWU professor who guides them in their research project and answers questions about graduate school in their field. EWU McNair is also proud of our current scholars who waded through an incredibly intensive summer research internship. All 8 weeks of summer quarter, they came each day, Monday through Friday, from 9-5, with two hours a day devoted to preparing strong graduate applications and the remaining six hours to research. And of course we encourage breaks here and there to check in with their peers or to go outside and play some badminton or kick ball (as you might have seen on the lawns outside Showalter or the JFK library).

For any students looking to explore research or who think they might want to go to graduate school, we strongly encourage that you reach out to McNair Staff or stop by our office at Monroe Hall 107 to see how we can support you in taking the next steps to pursue your dreams. And what we teach our scholars is that when professors say strongly encourage, that means do it! While we specifically serve first generation and low-income, as well as racially underrepresented students, we are happy to talk to any EWU student and connect you with the resources and information you need to get research experience or plan for applying to graduate school!

If you’re interested in applying to McNair, we encourage sophomores and juniors to apply and seniors and encouraged to apply if they have at least one summer (for the paid summer research internship) and fall before graduation. The priority application deadline is November 15th, 2023, applications received after this date will be considered as space allows. For Freshman, we encourage you to come talk to us about what you can do in the next year to prepare for graduate school and a strong application to McNair next year.

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