CORVALLIS - Oregon State University is turning out its first graduating class of McNair Scholars this month. The Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program is named for the nation's second African American to fly in space. The program is aimed at undergraduates who are first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds or students from ethnic groups underrepresented in doctoral studies.

"It's a wonderful program that takes care of students far beyond the usual undergraduate program," said OSU graduating senior Kathrin Dunlap, who is the first in her family to attend college.

"The reason the McNair Scholars program is so phenomenal, is that it matches each student with a faculty mentor," said Dunlap, who, after receiving her degree in animal sciences this month, will enter an OSU master's program in reproductive physiology.

Indeed, the program's 20 faculty mentors are the backbone of the McNair program, said Ataa Akyeampong, an OSU assistant professor and director of the campus' McNair program.

The program, in place at 156 institutions, is open to undergraduates in all fields and is designed to prepare students to pursue doctoral degrees at graduate schools throughout the world, Akyeampong said.

"We match the students with faculty mentors and you see the results," Akyeampong said.

When they start the program, some of the students are unsure about their chances of success in college, not to mention graduate school, said Sriyanthi Gunewardena, the program coordinator.

"But by the time the students finish the program, they have become role models, and not only on campus, but also back in their communities, for brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and, in many cases, for the community as whole," Gunewardena said.

"I compare our McNair Scholars to diamonds in the rough. If you don't polish them up a bit, you will never know what is hidden underneath," Akyeampong said.

Three students have already graduated from the program, which has been in place at OSU for about one year. But the 11 seniors graduating this month are the first graduating class.

Dunlap, who grew up on a ranch in Central Point, Ore., said a key selling point of the McNair program is the research requirement.

"McNair undergraduates have an opportunity to do pure research with their faculty mentors and there is little opportunity for that in most undergraduate programs," Dunlap said.

"The McNair Scholars program is fun," said Jason Graves, an OSU student from Springfield who will receive his bachelors degree in bioresource research this month.

"As an undergraduate I was already doing research that was instrumental in preparing me to go to graduate school," the low-income, first-generation college student said.

"In addition, McNair Scholars have classes together and social functions, most of it targeted at preparing us for grad school," said Graves, who will be attending graduate school at Wake Forest University in North Carolina this fall to study neurobiology.

The program encourages students to attend professional conferences in their fields, and, if appropriate, display posters or give oral presentations, Gunewardena said. A number of field trips are also scheduled each year. In addition, the McNair program holds it own conference each year, with McNair Scholars from throughout the country gathering together to talk and present their work.

The McNair conferences include "grad fairs," which include sessions and displays from graduate schools across country hoping to attract students to their university, Gunewardena said.

"The McNair Scholars program includes a lot of hard of work, but so do graduate programs," Akyeampong said. "And when our students get into graduate school they will have an edge" over students who haven't had the chance to work in research programs with faculty mentors.

OSU faculty mentors for the upcoming year include: Donna Champeau, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Performance; Patrick French, dairy scientist; Kayla Garcia, associate professor of Foreign Languages and Literature; Michael Ingram, assistant professor of Education; Sunil Khanna, assistant professor of Anthropology; Lloyd Klemke, Sociology; Charles Langford, associate professor of Sociology; Judith Li, assistant professor of Fisheries and Wildlife; Terri Lomax, professor of Botany and Plant Pathology; Dwaine Plaza, assistant professor of Sociology; Patti Sakurai, assistant professor of Ethnic Studies; Henry Sayre, distinguished professor of Art; Gary Tiedeman, department chair of Sociology; Celeste Walls, assistant professor of Speech Communication; Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, department chair of Ethnic Studies; Kurt Peters, associate professor of Ethnic Studies; Skip Rochefort, associate professor of Chemical Engineering; Larry Roper, vice provost for Student Affairs; Fredrick Stormshak, distinguished professor of Animal Sciences; and Antonio Torres, associate professor of Food Science and Technology.

Former mentors have included Juan Trujillo, assistant professor of Foreign Languages and Literature; Hal Koenig, associate professor of Business; Dan Luoma, Forest Science; Rebecca Warner, department chair of Sociology; Judith Vergun, director of the Native Americans in Marine and Space Sciences Program; Sally Gallagher, Sociology; Robert Thompson; assistant professor of Ethnic Studies; Anthony Collins, assistant professor of Pharmacy; Tory Hagen, assistant professor with the Linus Pauling Institute; Joyce Eberhart, Forest Science; and Anisa Zvonkovic, associate professor of Human Development and Family Sciences.

The McNair Scholars Advisory Board includes: Leslie Burns, director of Undergraduate Academic Programs; Lawrence Griggs, director of the Educational Opportunities Program; Michael Gutherless, Educational Opportunities Program; Jack Higginbotham, professor of Nuclear Engineering; Janet Nishihara, academic coordinator with Educational Opportunities Program; Mary Prucha, coordinator, Graduate Services; R. Bruce Rettig, associate dean, Graduate School; Antonio Torres, associate professor of Food Science and Technology.

"The advisory board has been very helpful in establishing and revising the program, and setting standards for the students' success," Akyeampong said.

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Ataa Akyeampong, 541-737-3923