A former non-English speaking housekeeper, a near high school dropout, the daughter of a single parent and a mid-semester cancer survivor round out the list of four University of Arizona McNair scholars who celebrated the completion of their master's and doctorate degrees as Centennial Award winners during Saturday's commencement ceremony.
While labels do not define these students, they do help to understand the purpose behind the UA's Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program, a remarkable federal program aimed at increasing the number of Ph.D.s awarded to students from groups underrepresented in higher education.
These McNair scholars – Veronica Gonzalez, James Cherwa, Jr., Chandra Jennings-Jackson, and Marisol Badilla, all graduate students – have overcome adversity on their academic paths to becoming a pharmacology and toxicology researcher, a microbiologist/virologist, a public health expert and a Mexican-American/Raza Studies teacher.
"This is truly and amazing achievement for all four scholars, but it is also a strong testament to the benefits and power of the McNair program," said Nura Dualeh the program's assistant director. "We offer close faculty mentoring opportunities, $3,000 in federal research stimpends, and very intensive, year-round, graduate preparation workshops and seminars."
All four students earned their undergraduate degrees from the UA where they participated in the McNair program, which provides financial support and other resources such as faculty mentorship, two summer research experiences, critical thinking and writing skills, GRE preparation as well as assistance in the graduate school application process.
The program, which is administered by the UA Graduate College, is directed by Maria Teresa Velez associate dean in the UA Graduate College and professor of psychology.
"It continues to be extremely rewarding to see how students from non-mainstream backgrounds can flourish and succeed in academia with just a little support," Velez said.
The program's impact is evident, as each student vividly recalls the moment they received a letter in the mail or an email explaining the program and inviting them to apply.
"I still have the letter," pharmacology and toxicology researcher Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was initially overwhelmed by the UA campus and began her studies at Pima Community College after quitting her job as a housekeeper and moving from Laughlin, Nev. to Tucson to be closer to her dream of becoming a doctor.
Originally from Mexico, Gonzalez dedicated herself to learning English and got a job working in biology and chemistry labs at Pima Community College.
From there, she had the opportunity to work in the lab of a UA professor over the summer and immediately decided she needed to enroll at the UA to pursue research opportunities. Upon enrollment she received the letter to apply for the McNair program, which she said significantly changed her life.
"When I started at the UA and worked at a lab, I realized that when you are a doctor you can help many people but you can only help those patients that you see," Gonzalez said. "If you go into research your discoveries can impact much more people with the implications of a significant finding, helping not only people here in the U.S. but also all over the world."
Helping others is a theme common among the McNair scholars.
For microbiology/virology researcher Cherwa, he believes his unique life experience, his enthusiasm for science and his research will help him as a professor to inspire a new generation of scientists.
Cherwa was 14 years removed from academia when he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College. During that time, he traveled the U.S. from coast to coast several times since starting and selling a restaurant upon barely graduating from high school.
Living out of his car, camping in national parks, building endurance as a cyclist and living through the good and tough times along the way helped him to define what he wanted for his future.
"Once I got to the UA the stars aligned," Cherwa said. Once I got here and got into a research lab I knew this was it for me. Science allows you to think. Research science encourages free thinking-I like that because it allows you creativity."
Cherwa said he was hesitant to apply for the McNair program because his initial reaction was that as a white male, he was not an underrepresented student.
"People in my situation, with my background or ethnicity are dissuaded from applying for minority programs because they think I'm not a minority but when you read fine print you understand what underrepresented means and that it's really all inclusive," Cherwa said.
Cherwa for instance, is the first in his family to enroll and graduate from college. "My family didn't even know what a Ph.D was. I had to explain the process," he said.
In Jennings-Jackson's case, she was not the first to graduate from college in her family; her mother was the first and instilled the value of higher education her daughter from an early age.
She found out about the McNair Achievement program in her junior year and with the encouragement of her mother and grandmother applied. She was encouraged by the funding and research experience opportunity that came with the honor.
"McNair gives you direction and the confidence to go on to graduate school," Jennings-Jackson said.
She graduates with a Master of Public Health degree in maternal and child health. And her experience, thanks to McNair, includes international health research as well as contributions to local community health activities.
She has worked to help eliminate health care disparities in Tucson in Spanish-speaking communities as well as in her own African-American community, even traveling to Montego Bay, Jamaica to research Type 2 diabetes.
For Badilla, reaching out to marginalized communities has been a foundation in the road to obtaining a master's degree in Mexican American studies. The road has been a bumpy one for Badilla, who is originally from Mexico. It included being kicked out of her family home for coming home after midnight study sessions at the library.
Badilla's experience led administrators at the UA McNair program to begin reaching out to their scholars' parents to help them understand the time and effort scholars need to dedicate to their educational advancement.
Badilla's research efforts include investigating anti-immigration messages to migrant women in Mexico as well as studying language issues and eventually developing a means to teach the O'odham language to O'odham children living in Mexico.
She also became interested in teaching while serving as a mentor to other McNair students.
But, in April of 2008, Badilla discovered she had cancer. Her mother was a cancer survivor and her mother's strength helped her get through the middle of her master's program and to prepare for finals.
Badilla had a lumpectomy, and with the help of McNair advisors, she coped with the identity issues of having breast cancer and continued moving forward with her studies until her mother had a recurrence of cancer.
She found herself stretched with continuing on her graduate studies while caring for her mother which included multiple doctor visits each week. Still, Badilla finished her master's degree just one semester later than she originally planned.
The students had nothing but praise for the McNair program and those affiliated with it.
"The program inspires you to do more, to keep raising the bar. McNair lays the foundation for you to have success when you enter graduate school," Cherwa said.
Gonzalez added: "The program has so many components to help you succeed. The people really, really care. They believe so much in you, that you start to believe that you can do it."
"Most of our McNair Scholars had never thought about education beyond their bachelor's degree prior to joining the program, and look at them now; most of our 135 scholars so far are pursuing their master's and Ph.D's and MD degrees, and several have already graduated. Their unique perspectives will make exciting contributions to society," said Velez.