Ronald E. McNair scholars planted a tree outside of the Special Programs building Monday in memory of an astronaut whose death has provided UNM minority students a chance to finish their education.
McNair was a black astronaut who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, along with his crewmates. According to a Special Programs pamphlet, his legacy lives on through the McNair scholarship, which provides first-generation, low-income, underrepresented students with the chance to complete graduate school. The program is funded by Congress through the U.S. Department of Education.
UNM President William Gordon said he was in his car on his way home when he heard about the explosion on the radio. During a brief speech at the event, he outlined some of McNair's achievements and interests -- from laser physics to karate.
"We should take time to celebrate that particular life because he achieved so much in 35 years," Gordon said.
UNM Provost Brian Foster emphasized how the scholarship provides guidance and information to help students find themselves academically.
After his speech, he said he was the first in his extended family to graduate from college.
"I don't think my parents ever set foot on a college campus," Foster said. "That's part of the reason why this program is meaningful to me. I really have a personal relationship with what it means to be clueless within that area."
Foster added that the scholarship provides more than money and advice.
"It gives people real experience with complicated things that you can't really tell them about," he said. "I love this program."
Scholars hugged each other and chatted in the dirt lawn of the Special Programs after the speeches and tree-planting ceremony.
McNair scholar Ricardo Romero said he has made many friends through the program. He said the scholars sometimes have parties and are planning a ski trip.
"We've developed a really nice community," he said. "We didn't even know each other before this."
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Romero, who is a history and Spanish double major, said the best part of the program is being a research assistant.
"I got to do an oral history project in which the dominant language was Spanish, and now I'm working on a documentary from the research project," Romero said. "I've been able to incorporate all the skills I've gained at UNM."
Romero said he appreciates having access to computers in the Special Programs building and having people to help him fill out applications.
"They've really given me the push to apply to graduate school," Romero said.
The program covers the costs of all graduate applications and the Graduate Record Examinations, which cost $100.
Donna George, administrative assistant to Special Programs, said the McNair scholarship program exists at 156 other universities and began at UNM a year ago. She said UNM's McNair budget is about $200,000 per year. The money pays for workshops that teach students how to apply to graduate school. It also pays for a summer research program that includes writing professional papers and traveling to other schools to present projects.
George said students must have at least a year of school left before graduation to qualify for the McNair Scholarship.
For more information on the program, visit the UNM Special Programs Web site at www.specialprograms.unm.edu.