The Legacy of Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D.

By Jenn Andersen

The life of Dr. Ronald E. McNair stands out as one of great courage and persistence. McNair believed there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. At nine years old, he walked down to his neighborhood library to check out science books, and bravely stood up to a librarian who wouldn’t lend them to him because of the color of his skin.

McNair never stopped learning. He was valedictorian of his high school class and went on to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he graduated magnum cum laude. He received a scholarship to continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned a Ph.D. in Physics. He applied and was accepted, to NASA’s Astronaut Training Program. Dr. McNair completed his first shuttle mission on February 11th, 1984 and became the second African-American to go to space.

Dr. McNair’s second flight aboard the Challenger was on January, 28th, 1986. I was six years old and in first grade watching what was should have been the most incredible things to happen in education; the first teacher was going into space! Growing up in a military family, space flight was important, and I could not think of anything more exciting than to be an astronaut on a shuttle mission like the Challenger. While watching the launch, a terrible accident took the lives of Dr. McNair, the teacher Christa McAuliffe, and the rest of the crew of Flight STS-51-L. This was devastating to me as a young student and heartbreaking for the entire United States. Little did I know that this difficult moment in history would come back to bring me some of the greatest joys of my experience as a scholar-in-training.

After the Challenger Disaster in 1986, The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program was established to assist first-generation students with financial need, and underrepresented students in academia in obtaining a Ph.D. Students undergo specialized advising, intensive research experiences and are prepared to apply to and succeed in graduate school. This program was developed for people like us, who knew they could excel in academics but never understood how to get from high school to college, let alone going on to graduate school to obtain a Ph.D. I didn’t know in the first grade watching the launch of the Challenger that almost thirty years later I would be graduating from UNL wearing the sky blue honor cord that honors Dr. McNair’s last flight into the sky. Graduation from UNL marked not only my success but the success of the McNair program in upholding Dr. McNair’s legacy. Like many of my cohort and those who have come before me, I will be the first ever in my family to pursue a Ph.D.

As you begin your first week of MSRE, I hope you keep Dr. McNair’s legacy in the back of your mind. His memory lives on with each success, and in the support that each cohort of McNair Scholars gives to each other and to the cohorts that follow. I am proud to be on this journey with you as a graduate assistant and excited to see each of you succeed in MSRE. #WeareMcNair #IAmUNLMSP

 Eyes on the Stars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okF5UGpivR8
 Sources:
http://www.npr.org/2011/01/28/133275198/astronauts-brother-recalls-a-man-who-dreamed-big
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger
http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/triohistory.html
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