McNair Scholars Program returns to NMSU, helps PhD-bound students with their goals


Leah De La Torre

The McNair Scholars Program returned to NMSU helping students with their goals of pursuing a doctoral program. Graphic by Leah De La Torre

Starting this semester, the McNair Scholars Program is back at New Mexico State University with the renewed goal of helping first generation and low-income college students work towards their PhDs.  

Named for astronaut and physicist Ronald McNair, the program is a TRIO Program, a group of federally funded student service programs. They aim to serve individuals coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, including low-income students, students with disabilities, and first-generation college students. The McNair Program specifically is designed to inspire underrepresented students to get their PhDs by providing research opportunities, internships, and mentoring, in addition to financial assistance. 

“The McNair program is the number one outreach source for graduate programs,” said Marko Mohlenhoff, director of the program at NMSU. “So, for a student who’s curious about whether grad education and a PhD would be for them, I think we’re easily going to be able to make that case that it is for them and get them excited about it. We’re structuring experiences so that when all is said and done, my goal is they’ll have their pick of PhD programs to choose from and find the right match for them.” 

There are multiple McNair Scholar Programs sprinkled at different schools throughout the country. In fact, NMSU was already home to a program years ago, but eventually lost it due to some renewal difficulties and the competitive field.  

When Phame Camarena, dean of the William Conroy Honors College, came to NMSU, he came with the intention of restarting the program. A first-generation college student himself, Camarena worked with principal investigator Tony Marin to bring the McNair program back to New Mexico State and give students the help he once received. 

“The McNair helps guide students,” Camarena said. “It helps provide some hands-on support, finding students who are excited to learn, who have a passion for their field. We help them figure out which program to go into, and we connect them with professors to give them direct mentoring. We help explore possibilities.” 

Camarena is determined to keep the McNair program at NMSU for as long as possible to help more students “discover the joy of going on for a PhD” and elevate their field of study. However, he says that even as dean of NMSU’s Honors College, he speaks to a lot of students who don’t know what a PhD is or haven’t even considered it as a career choice. 

“A PhD is no better than law school, no better than a MD, no better than any other degree,” Camarena said. “But to find the students where it’s a good fit, where this is the best match of their talents and passions- when we find that, and we help that student go up that path, that’s powerful. And it then changes the future.” 

A big part of finding these students depends on faculty and professoriate. Camarena and Mohlenhoff are hoping that, as the program becomes more integrated in the school, professors will know of students in their classes who meet the program criteria and have the potential for graduate education. Even if students aren’t thinking of themselves for a PhD, having a faculty member reach out to them could lead to a new opportunity.  

The involvement of professors in this program is particularly personal as New Mexico State as a Hispanic-serving institution.  

“Being in the Borderlands, we should have much greater representation here at NMSU in terms of our Latin X professoriate,” Mohlenhoff said. “And this is a way that we can impact that sort of dynamic on a national level for students who are coming from Latino or African American backgrounds. So being able to work with the students who have that potential to achieve the PhD and become a professor and support them in their quest that they can help change what higher education looks like in this country.” 

This is an important inspiration for the handful of seniors already in the McNair Program for the remainder of this year. Jordy Espino Lopez, a first-generation college student, calls his involvement in the program “unbelievable.”  

While he only has a semester left, Espino Lopez is excited for younger students to receive the same opportunity, now that the McNair Scholars Program is here to stay. He’s hoping that as word spreads, more students will join. 

“I think that it’s important to really see it as a big opportunity to challenge yourself, to know that you can do a lot of things, that you’re capable, that you’re special and that you can do great things for you and for your community,” Espino Lopez said. “I think is worth it to join and to work on your own goals, and goals that are gonna help the community as well, as a PhD student in reaching your academic goals.” 

While seniors in this year’s program have already been selected and the priority deadline for applying juniors has closed, NMSU’s McNair Scholars Program is still reviewing sophomore applicants for its first year back on campus.  

Applications should be submitted by the end of March or early April and will be reviewed throughout April. Anyone looking to apply or learn more should visit the McNair Scholars Program.

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