Wellesley’s McNair Program Is Helping Change the Face of STEM

Six Wellesley 2022 graduates who were also McNair scholars pose together for a photograph.
Image credit: Teofilo Barbalho
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

“I absolutely adore McNair. I love the people, and I love what they are doing for students on campus,” said Oluwatosin (Tosin) Banjo ’23, a biochemistry major and Posse scholar who has been a McNair scholar since her sophomore year. Banjo is one of 34 Wellesley students who are part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which supports first-generation college students and students from underrepresented backgrounds who aim to earn Ph.D.s in a STEM-related discipline.

Wellesley has received McNair funding since 2017, and the College’s grant was recently renewed for about $1.3 million over five years, thanks to the success of Wellesley McNair alums. Of the more than 180 institutions that receive funding through the program, Wellesley is the only women’s college.

Eligible Wellesley students can apply for the McNair program during their sophomore and junior years (other programs that support first-generation and underrepresented students, such as QuestBridge, require students to apply before they arrive on campus). Tianna Green ’22, a physics major who is pursuing a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, applied as a junior. “I was interested in graduate school, but I had no idea where to start,” she said. “No one in my family had gone to graduate school before.”

Green is grateful for the support she received through the program during the graduate school application process: the required writing class where she drafted and edited her application essays and research statements, the funding to travel to conferences and do research, the laptop she was given upon graduation—and the graduate school application fees. “I applied to nine schools and didn’t pay a dime,” said Green, who was accepted to eight of those schools.

Banjo and fellow McNair scholar Eunice Beato ’23, an astrophysics major with a minor in American studies, are both in the thick of graduate school applications right now and, like Green, have benefited from the support the program provides. “I was like, what even is grad school? No one in my family has done that before,” said Beato. Banjo said she was overwhelmed by the application process and had no idea where to start: “Sometimes I felt that my experiences were not enough to apply to prestigious M.D.-Ph.D. programs, but McNair supports me and encourages me every step of the way.”

During the semester, Jocelyne Dolce, senior instructor in biological sciences laboratory and interim director of the McNair program at Wellesley, and Teofilo Barbalho, assistant director of the program, meet with the current cohort of 34 McNair scholars as a full group every other week, and individually on the alternate weeks. Dolce, who served as a faculty mentor for the first cohorts of the Posse and Clare Boothe Luce scholars programs, co-teaches the required McNair writing class with Jeannine Johnson, director of the Writing Program. She said she loves “getting to witness those life-changing moments.” “I love seeing how the whole trajectory of a student’s life can change because they got into this one program,” she said, “and how it impacts not just them but their families too.”

“I get to provide the kind of support I wish I had when I was their age,” said Barbalho. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this. It’s an honor to serve these students.”

Green regularly stopped by Barbalho’s office to ask him for advice as she applied to Ph.D. programs, to get his perspective when she was deciding between Stanford and Northwestern, and also to talk generally about life. “I remember coming to his office and Teo asking ‘How are you?’ and I started talking about my applications, and he said, ‘No, how are you.’ Teo wanted to get to know me as a person first,” said Green. “I am indebted to him because he helped me so much.”

“I can be more human with [the McNair advisors] than strictly academics,” said Beato. And she said the community of fellow students makes McNair especially valuable. “We can share experiences that we’ve had, like feeling imposter syndrome because there are so few women and people of color in STEM fields,” said Beato. “We’re all figuring out things together. You may have internalized not being able to do it, but you get so much more confident being around people who are going through the same experience and supporting each other, and, at the end of the day, you realize, ‘I do belong in these spaces even if they weren’t meant for me.’”

Dolce and Barbalho said the primary goal of the Wellesley McNair program is to increase representation in STEM fields, but an added benefit is that once those students have established their own careers, they can mentor other students and build an ongoing support system in STEM. “We need more representation because science doesn’t always represent all viewpoints,” said Dolce.

Green, Banjo, and Beato encourage interested students to apply, even if they are not sure yet if a STEM graduate program is right for them––being in the McNair program will help them figure it out. (Current Wellesley students may apply by November 1.) Whether or not they ultimately pursue a STEM Ph.D., they said, being a McNair scholar helps them find their people.

“Even though Wellesley is a very diverse place, some of that diversity can be lost within STEM classes, so to have those meetings and that writing course and to be surrounded by your Black and brown peers who are pursuing similar interests, it meant the world,” said Green. “We struggled together, we laughed together, we cried together, we stressed together, we studied together. We edited and helped each other with our essays, and I think that community was the biggest support that we all needed.”