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Ronald E. McNair and Perseverance

January 28, 2022

By Kate Robins

Ronald E. McNairThirty-six years ago, on January 28, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds after its launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven of its crew members. One of the crew members was Ronald E. McNair, PhD. A child prodigy, McNair was an accomplished musician, physicist, and fifth-degree black-belt karate champion. He was also first in his family to attend college, only the second African American in space, and the namesake of TRIO’s Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.

McNair had faced and overcome a life-long series of steep challenges to earn his long list of credentials. As a child in segregated Lake City, South Carolina, a librarian in a whites-only library called the police when he wanted to check out books. He prevailed and got the books. Although he was his high school class valedictorian, he had to go out of state to pursue his passions because white universities in South Carolina didn’t accept black students for their physics or engineering programs. That ended up being fortuitous as his success at North Carolina A&T State University led him to an advisor who encouraged him, despite his self-doubt, to apply to the doctoral program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, the challenges continued to pile up. While at MIT, someone stole his bag containing two years of research and data. Calmly, McNair did not steer from his goals. He simply started over from scratch.

After his first space mission in 1984, McNair toured the U.S., speaking to school children about his code for success against all odds. His widow, Cheryl McNair shared these principles with attendees at COE’s 2020 Annual Conference session, Bringing the Dream to Live: The Legislative History of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program:

  • 1. Whatever you do, do it with excellence, to the best of your ability.
  • 2. Be determined and persevere. There will be obstacles. Get through them.
  • 3. Help others.

Ronald E. McNairWhat is now known as the TRIO McNair program has overcome its own developmental challenges and setbacks. After the 1986 tragedy, Congress was renewing the Higher Education Act and considering changes to TRIO. Cheryl McNair said she was shocked when South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurman called her to propose naming the new TRIO program after her late husband in 1987. But the Reagan Administration had no interest in the new program. They considered it duplicative of an existing program and so it only existed on paper, without funding, for three years. In 1990 the entire TRIO community pressed Congress for language in the appropriations bill to fund the program — and these efforts prevailed. Fourteen initial programs were awarded funding for three years, conferences were held, a journal launched, and partnerships formed exponentially. Michael Jeffries, former McNair program director at University of Illinois said programs grew quickly “from 14 to 68, 99 and 156, with interest from the big 10 graduate schools, Ivy league institutions, Howard, Emery, John Jay, NYU and Columbia…”

But in 2012 the Obama Administration re-allocated $10 million away from the McNair program and shifted it to Upward Bound Math Science. Again the TRIO community launched a “all-out assault,” going to The White House, the Department of Education, and Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, the effort was not successful with the Democratic-controlled Congress. By the end of that appropriations cycle, there were fifty fewer programs and 1,400 few students with notable program losses at HBCUs — including McNair’s alma mater, North Carolina A&T. Although the Trump Administration initially proposed to cut the McNair program, along with Educational Opportunity Centers, congressional Republicans helped COE defeat the proposal in Congress and gave TRIO an overall $60 million increase.

In 2019, the McNair leaders established the McNair Association of Professionals (MAP) to support, empower and elevate the work of McNair students and programs. Inaugural MAP President, Cami Valdez, PhD., said, “That perseverance of Dr. McNair was so key and serves as an inspiration for our students.” Valdez, who worked at MIT, reminds us that Dr. McNair’s powerful presence continues to thrive at the institution and hinges on his undergrad counselor’s encouragement to apply. “He was intimidated by that place [yet] today his photo is blown up huge in the astronomy department.”