By David Goll
Puneet Sanghera is the daughter of immigrants from India, a first-generation American college student and she is on the verge of earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology.
“I grew up in a conservative family,” she said. “Because my parents didn’t attend college in this country, they didn’t know all of the opportunities available to me when I was in high school.”
The San Jose native entered SJSU as a pre-nursing major, but she discovered nursing “wasn’t the right fit for [her].” After taking a semester off to help her grandmother recover from surgery, she returned to school. She switched majors, became a McNair Scholar and found a mentor in Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, an assistant professor of Biological Sciences.
“I really want to learn more about my field, so decided to pursue graduate studies,” she said.
On March 11, Sanghera reached her goal. She got word she was accepted at her first-choice school, San Francisco State University.
Sanghera credits hard work and her involvement with SJSU’s Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program for helping her gain admission to a graduate program. The McNair Scholars program is named for the second African-American to fly in space who overcame long odds to earn a PhD in physics and become an astronaut. After he died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, Congress created the program in his honor to increase the number of underrepresented students pursuing doctoral degrees.
Dr. Maria Elena Cruz, director of the SJSU McNair chapter, said the university’s two-year program started more than two decades ago. It is funded entirely by federal dollars. Students typically get involved during their sophomore or junior years.
“Through the work we do with students in the program we can see if they’re a good fit for graduate education,” she said.
Most are, Dr. Cruz said. The group is comprised of at least 28 students who start the program in January. They hail from a variety of SJSU majors. During the first spring semester, students meet weekly to learn about research methods, weigh research subjects and prepare for GRE (Graduate Record Examination) tests. Fifteen of the students receive a stipend of $2,800 during the summer to work on research projects. A summer “boot camp” open to McNair scholars and all students from SJSU, and other universities gives instruction on how to choose a graduate school, how to write a great personal statement, and how to write to some of their dream schools and professors.
During the fall, McNair scholars do research analysis and begin the writing process, so that they can publish in our yearly McNair Scholars Journal. Dr. Cruz said she supports them by enlisting writing specialists, such as Taylor Dawn Francis, who is working on a master’s in English. At SJSU Students have up to 10 years to complete work on master’s and doctoral degrees from the time they graduate with their bachelor’s degree.
“Some students end up just pursuing a master’s degree, though they may eventually pursue a PhD,” Cruz said. “We’ve had students attend Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Stanford, Maryland, the University of Chicago and UC-Berkeley. On average we have two people who have earned their PhD every year. Compared to the national average of 3.3% according to the National Science Foundation, the McNair Scholars Program at SJSU has earned an 11.11% for 2016-2017.”
Dr. Cruz states that “participation in doctoral education by underrepresented minority groups such as African Americans and Chicanx/Latinx groups who are first-generation and are awarded a PhD is lower than 2 percent of the national average (NSF 2017). Thus, the McNair Scholars Program is pivotal for the future of our communities.”
Sanghera’s classmate, Daniel Kelley, also graduates in May. Though interested in attending graduate school, Kelley said he knew little about it until a friend introduced him to McNair.
“I want to stand out and be more competitive,” said the psychology major from southern California’s Lancaster. He hopes to attend either SJSU or UC Berkeley for grad school. “McNair has prepared me.”
Kelley already works with his mentor, Dr. David Schuster, an assistant professor of Psychology, in conducting research into cyber-security issues in private companies.
Isaac Gendler, a junior mechanical engineering major from Los Angeles, also had an early jump on research, studying automatic transit system guide ways. His report is in the process of being published. He said McNair has provided valuable information about graduate school applications and securing research funding. It even helped him attend a recent Chicago conference on heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems. The greatest value to McNair, he said, is its diverse, multi-disciplinary approach.
“It gave me the opportunity to talk with people from different backgrounds and perspectives,” Gendler said. “When you have homogeneous groups of people talking to each other, nothing new results. McNair brings together people from all over, offering fresh viewpoints. This is how you innovate and disrupt the status quo.”