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How Three McNair Programs Pivoted and Shifted Through the Pandemic

July 21, 2021

By Kate Robins

In March of 2020 more than 14-million college students in the U.S. left campuses for spring break with no idea of what would follow. The threat of the COVID-19 virus loomed over the entire world and institutions took measures to curtail its spread.

“They initially extended our spring break an extra week, thinking that would be enough,” recalls Jon Crider, director of the McNair Scholars Program at Texas Tech University. “Then they said, ‘You’re not coming back to campus,’ so we immediately made the switch to online.”

Easy it sounds, switching to online isn’t simple for many low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities working toward graduate school. Dormitories, for some, were a critical reprieve from difficult home situations, non-conducive to completing enrollment requirements for an advanced degree.

Working computers, wi-fi access, and keeping graduate school a priority while off campus for a seemingly endless stretch of time were just a few of many challenges demanding fierce creativity, resiliency and flexibility.

“I had students who were zooming in from closets since they had limited private space, students zooming in from small family businesses that they needed to help out with,” said Alice Ho, director of the University of California Los Angles McNair Research Scholars Program.

TRIO professional staff scrambled to help student needs. Resources and policies varied from campus to campus. Michael Hunt, director of University of Maryland Baltimore County McNair Scholars Program said his staff personally paid for students’ food on occasion. “Students from underserved communities have had the brunt of the pandemic. Seeing them take on additional jobs on top of a full load of classes is heartbreaking,” he said. A few campuses made exceptions for students in extreme need and allowed them to quarantine alone in single dorms. The isolation for these students was excruciating.

[The deadline to include your McNair Scholars in the annual McNair Scholars Directory has been extended to August 1. Contact Nicole Norfles today at (nicole.norfles@coenet.org) with your plans to submit your Scholars' information.]

Restricted lab access meant research stopped for several students studying everything from lupus to alligators. Others were able to proceed, like a student building a search and rescue robot who could code from home or those who could develop secondary analyses with previously used data sets.

An eight-week summer research institute went on hold as labs shuttered and students scattered to various refuge points. Seasons collapsed into a year of relentless pivoting and shifting. For staff, this included shifting students’ requirements.

“It wasn’t really fair to make some of these things required if students couldn’t access or have the bandwidth, with all the responsibilities on their plate,” Ho said. Many considered taking a gap year.

Directors and staff worked through solutions both with their institutions, which all had different policies, COE and the McNair community (McNair Association of Professionals). Professionals leaned in to each other to learn best practices to manage both program objectives and student needs in such unprecedented times. They created a new service where McNair staff across the country review students’ personal statements for graduate school applications and then meet with those students online to critique them.

Despite hurdles, papers rolled in, students presented their research and applied to graduate school. Next year will be a bit different than expected: some students will graduate a year later than planned, meaning that programs will be more crowded this fall.

Students are, by and large, back. Campus life won’t ever be the same and may in some ways be better. The pandemic’s disruption sped development of technologies, heightening their efficiency, and boosting access to events that were previously unmanageable in person.

Above all, students and directors discovered their own deep resiliency, and bonding strength with each other to stay goal-focused in a time of anxiety-wracking uncertainty.

“McNair is an optional thing. They could have just said, ‘You know what? I’ve got too much going on. I’m done. But all of them stuck around,” Crider says.

Some of the TRIO professionals’ retrospective observations:

  • Students transition well.
  • Students have a healthy default to fight isolation by connecting with others on social media and focused on their mental health and self-care.
  • Social media and zoom rooms are more effective at relaxing students than formal ice-breakers. (McNair UMBC students feel more connected to McNair than UMBC according to a survey last semester).
  • Virtual conferences and meetings eliminate financial and time-consuming barriers so that more students can attend. They’re also less intimidating.
  • Zoom is a more efficient way to coordinate students and graduate school recruiters from around the country.
  • Zoom is a boon for students and staff on very large campuses or institutions with classes spread across multiple campuses.
  • Online documents and e-sign are here to stay.