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Kearns Community Blog

An Open Letter to McNair and Future McNair Scholars

An “unofficial” McNair Scholar’s road to tenure-track faculty

I consider myself a Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Scholar, but I went through the program in a “non-traditional” route—let me share.

My junior year of college, I changed my career path. I decided I no longer wanted to go to medical school; I wanted to become a college administrator removing barriers for underrepresented populations. The next semester, the dean of institutional diversity from Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU), attended Shaw University’s graduate school fair. I didn’t need the GRE at that time because I had over a 3.0 GPA and to my recollection they didn’t require a personal statement. If they did, that lets you know I didn’t write anything too memorable; it also highlights me navigating my way through the graduate school process all on my own. I was accepted about a month later, and my best friend and I went to MSU.

I was in my second semester of a master’s degree in educational leadership at MSU and I developed my own practicum, which included me shadowing the provost and vice president for academic and student affairs for a semester. This relationship eventually extended well beyond a semester as he became a mentor, which he remains to this day. During one of my shadowing experiences, we attended a birthday celebration for the director of research and sponsored programs. The director and I had the chance to speak briefly and I told her where I was from, my current GPA, and my immediate plans of going home and teaching high school chemistry before I applied to Ph.D. program in a few years. She replied, “come to my office on Monday.”

I went to her office that Monday and when I walked out, I was prepared to apply to Ph.D. programs within a month. That preparation includes letters of recommendation from faculty in your field or lateral fields, a customized personal statement for each institution, GRE scores, money for the applications if the fee is not waived, a curriculum vitae or resume, and all academic transcripts. She also coached me through GRE verbal for the month; as a former chemistry major, I felt confident in the quantitative section. I received a score of 1060 (370 on the verbal—never self-select out) and was admitted into the PhD program in higher education at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. The same year, I was awarded MSU’s Pre-Doctoral Fellowship.

What a sudden change in future plans, right? I went from planning to be a high school chemistry teacher to PhD student and full-time instructor of educational leadership teaching master’s courses. It just so happens the director of research and sponsored programs was a former director of McNair and saw that I needed guidance.

Three years later, I was offered the position of Graduate Recruitment and Retention Specialist in the David T. Kearns Center. I was responsible for recruiting underrepresented minority, first-generation, and low-income college students or McNair-eligible populations for our graduate programs. Since the position was housed in the Kearns Center, I learned so much more about what I didn’t really understand when applying for my master’s and doctorate programs. I also learned a great deal about becoming a tenure-track faculty member. I learned this through recruiting and advising McNair Scholars, participating in the “Culture of the Academy” course, working closely with Dr. Beth Olivares and Dr. Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, and by having the opportunity to hear Don Asher speak and attend GEM GRAD Labs. During this time I was also doing my dissertation on the side and starting to enjoy research.

When I finished my degree in higher education administration on February 8, 2012 by defending my dissertation, I was fully prepared for my role as assistant professor of higher education at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI. Not solely because of my educational preparation, but because of my involvement with the Ronald E. McNair Program and its advocates. I chose an institution that “fit and matched” who I was; make sure you do the same for your graduate programs. My first semester was one of transitions, but transitions I’ve truly enjoyed; any big move presents transitions. I went from Rochester, NY to Portsmouth, VA to Grand Rapids, MI within two months! However, I was well equipped to articulate and initiate my research agenda, serve my students with a commitment to excellent teaching, and serve the University and broader community.

Many people comment on how relaxed I am in my new home. I owe a good amount of that to exposure to McNair and its champions like Michelle Carter, JD (the former McNair director I met in 2007). I was prepared to teach several new courses; I was prepared to conduct research and report my findings in peer-reviewed journals; I was prepared to advise student groups, participate on committees, and direct programs for “non-traditional” students. McNair helped prepared me. Your experience will be different but it will not be because of exposure. Kearns will give much—if not all—of what you need.  

I wanted to share my experience with McNair Scholars and future McNair Scholars as an African American who was a low income, first-generation college student and is now a tenure-track faculty member through kairos moments, fate, karma, or however you would classify it through your “ways of knowing.” Because you are a student in the Kearns Center, you have access to resources to launch your ideal trajectory. Take in all you can from the Kearns Center staff, services, and programs. I earned a Ph.D. at the age of 27 and the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Program has played an important role in my life although I am not listed on the historic scroll of McNair Scholars. That’s why I consider myself an “unofficial” McNair Scholar. I look forward to welcoming you into the academy of scholars soon.


Donald Mitchell


About the Author

Dr. Donald Mitchell

Dr. Mitchell is an assistant professor of higher education at Grand Valley State University. His scholarship focuses on race and gender in higher education, Black Greek-lettered organizations, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He was awarded the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity's 2012 Richard McKaig Outstanding Doctoral Research Award and cited Honorable Mention for the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education's 2013 "Outstanding Doctoral Research Award Competition" for his dissertation, "Are They Truly Divine?: A Grounded Theory of the Influences of Black Greek-Lettered Organizations on the Persistence of African Americans at Predominantly White Institutions." Visit to learn more about Dr. Mitchell.

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