Sunday, September 9

McNair: FIVE More Years!

On a Tuesday morning COE sends out the email saying the McNair slate is out.  This is something we’ve been thinking about, wondering about, fretting about for over a year now – way before we even submitted the grant on June 7.   I distinctly recall getting the email on July 4, 2011 saying that McNair is in trouble.  In trouble!  With the budget and economic times the way they are, the federal government was only going to refund two-thirds of McNair programs nationwide.  That meant only 134 of 200 programs would be refunded.  Not good!

So our goal: write a perfect grant.  We had to!  Nothing like putting on the pressure.  No biggie, we can do this.  This was my second time writing the grant so at least I had experience under my belt.  I also had Maureen.  Long story short, Maureen is a McNair scholar, turned McNair graduate assistant/Ph.D. student and ah-mazing comrade and partner.  Did I mention that Maureen is a highly skilled writer, communicator, researcher and generally highly knowledgeable about all-things-McNair?  Yeah, she’s with me.
I enlisted Maureen’s help on the grant and she spent the greater portion of the spring semester updating all of our sources that *demonstrate need* for a McNair program at CMU.  I focused on other “goodies” like the plan of operation, budget, objectives and the like.  This time around, the Department of Education included the "option" for us to address several “competitive priorities” if we chose to.  Certainly a “no brainer” since we needed to accumulate all the points we could.  Suffice it to say, doing more with less and recruiting more STEM students is the name of the game! 

As an already well-established McNair program producing Ph.D.’s yearly (we have THREE to date with over twenty more in the Ph.D. pipeline), we also had the benefit of scoring additional “prior year experience points” – also an essential item if we were to make the cut!  Despite never quite knowing how those prior year experience points were figured from year to year, the Department actually told us how they do it during a recent COE conference.  Based on that information, we knew that we would secure all points accessible to us.  Yes!
Things came to a head the week the grant was due which happened to coincide with both Maureen and I escorting our McNair scholars to a Graduate School Training Camp hosted by Murray State University in the “far reaches” of Kentucky.  Needless to say, all of the McNair directors present at camp were pretty darn stressed.  We compared notes, shared drafts and told each other that all we could do was our best.  Okay, that sounds good, right?  I won’t go into the details, but one or two breakdowns (some more major than others) later, we submitted the grant upon our return. 

I have to mention the calm, capable and steady presence of Deborah Clark – our grants person – who took us through every step of the process (which is convoluted to say the least – come on, it’s the federal government) and all I have to say about that is – I love you, Deb.  You ROCK!  Seriously, other programs that don’t have such awesome grants folks are up a creek plain and simple.  This is now our second time through with Deb!

June 7 came and went, and for a while, we chilled.  We chilled meaning we didn’t think as much about the grant.  We were in full force with the Summer Research Institute and working with our current group of scholars.  My stomach returned to normal and before we knew it, it was getting more challenging to make a turn onto Mission (meaning students were creeping back!) and school was about to start again.  I knew I had to proceed with our normal recruitment efforts despite not knowing if we would be able to service this next group of scholars.  Talk about having to muster up some energy and excitement without really having *real* energy and excitement.  Not fun. 
Meanwhile, we were receiving almost daily emails from COE (Council on Opportunity in Education, our DC-based organization that advocates on behalf of Trio programs) updating us on advocacy efforts to restore McNair funding, calls to action for alumni, current students and faculty and supporters to sign petitions and contact their representatives.  No real positive information was coming from Washington despite such efforts.  A good number of McNair programs were going to be cut nationwide – to the tune of about 75 in all!

My anxiety level rising once again coincided with the start of the fall semester.  Everywhere I went people were asking me if I knew about our grant it seemed.  Nope!  No idea.  The last time we wrote (back in 2007), I distinctly remember attending COE’s annual conference in Chicago in mid-September and still NOT knowing if we were safe.  Our grant expires on September 30 every four years.  We found out September 17 that CMU made it!  You know, it’s always nice to have some planning time knowing that you will be continuing to run a program after the next two weeks. 

The Department of Education since became notorious for being slow to announce grantees for other Trio programs and the pressure was on to announce not only McNair, but Upward Bound Math and Science and Veterans Upward Bound.  Again, in dealing with the federal government, this would be no small feat!  One of the primary COE outreach strategies had actually been to postpone the McNair competition until after the elections.  Obviously that had not come to fruition.
One day after our program assistant interviews for a new job (because she doesn’t know if she’ll have a job come the end of the month!), I wake up to an email from COE stating that the McNair slate, as they call it, is out.  Now, you might think that we would simply all get emails, or a letter even, telling us YES or NO.  Ah, no, that would not be the case.  Instead, we all have to go “sleuthing around” to find out if we are refunded.  The Department sends letters to Congress who then makes this information public.  I immediately call my contact in Senator Stabenow’s office and leave a message.  Doug had called me as soon as our CMU Upward Bound program had been refunded (yes, CMU rocks!).  I then called my contact in Representative Camp’s office and left a message.  Then I called Toby Roth, CMU’s congressional staff person.  Then Mary Montoye called me for a reference for our program assistant, Julie.  Of course, I’m shaking and freaking out.  No biggie, I can give Mary a reference, no problem. 

I had just read my two daily emails – one from the Daily Love (check it if you haven’t -, it’s cool!) and the Winner’s Circle – and BOTH (yes, BOTH) talked about how sometimes life can really throw you big challenges and that even if the meaning isn’t immediately clear, those challenges make us stronger.  I immediately think: oh my gosh, we’re not being refunded.  I’m going to be jobless (I’m not even thinking about the scholars – sorry guys – at this point).  I’m mid-conversation with Mary and my cell beeps in with a 202 number – DC!  I say to Mary, “gotta go, call you back” and pick up.  It’s the educational aide from Camp’s office, I stop breathing and wait.  Ashton says she has GOOD NEWS.  OMG, jumping for joy, happy dance X100, trying to breathe, smiling uncontrollably, I can’t even believe it.  She got the letter late last night.  CMU IS IN!  Wow.
Seriously, I’m dancing around the house (I was home that day with our babysitter having started fall classes) and everyone was still sleeping, including Ken.  I call Mary.  I get Sue who passes me to Deb who then passes me back to Mary (they are all in the research office) and we are all ecstatic together.  Couldn’t be better!  Ah-mazing.  Who do I call next?  My mom, Ken’s mom, Ken finally wakes up to the good news, I call my friend Pat who also directs a McNair program in Michigan (she doesn’t know yet if she’s in – she must not have contacts like me – JUST KIDDING!), I’ve got other director friends emailing me, they don’t know either.  Pure craziness!  I text Julie and ask her to send a note to the scholars.  I call and leave a message for Maureen.  I post it on Facebook.  Love that!  I think I ended up with about 70 “likes” and a bunch of awesome comments.  McNair unite!  The only reason I really got on Facebook in the first place was to stay connected with our awesome alumni.

It’s been several weeks now since we got the news and I’m still in shock.  After being so deeply stressed (even if I could “ignore” it on the surface) for so long, it’s going to take a moment to decompress and get back onto a “normal” track and way of being.  As a matter of fact, I have to admit that I much prefer this way of being.  I LOVE this way of being.  I love that we can now move forward with recruiting our next cohort knowing that we will actually have a next cohort.  I love that I can get my current scholars on track applying to schools this fall and start booking plane tickets to go and visit their future faculty advisors!  I love that I can continue to move forward with my own coaching training and become even better at what I do.  If anything, this past year has been a tremendous gift in the form of giving me the confidence and inspiration to really embrace what I do and take it to a whole new level.  I’m just super pumped!
It’s been absolutely FANTASTIC walking around campus and sharing the news and joy!  I love that we have such an amazing support network of faculty, staff and students around campus.  It makes this work feel even more special and amazing than it is.  I just returned from New York after attending COE’s annual conference and I have to tell you – we are LUCKY!  The word on the street isn’t entirely complete and the fight continues as I write this, but McNair programs are being cut across the country in significant numbers.  Big, long-standing programs with great track records.  While this may be due to the reality of our current economic situation, I believe that it MAKES OUR WORK AT CMU EVEN MORE PRESSING and “of the essence.” 

Our job is to pluck motivated and curious students from the crowds.  Motivated students that come from some hard backgrounds but have persevered.  Motivated students who demonstrate a certain curiosity and passion for….SOMETHING…..FOR LIFE…..and want to take their education to a whole new level.  They just might not know exactly how to make that happen.  We work with these amazing students and get to witness their evolution and growth in a way that most do not.  We get to push, encourage, elevate, support, excite and witness the growth of our students.  The amount that we learn from our students and this work is simply icing on the cake.  There’s nothing better than receiving notes from our alumni around the country with their exciting news, or better yet, having our alumni come back to Mt. Pleasant after receiving their Ph.D. for a celebratory dinner with faculty, friends and mentors.  CMU McNair students ROCK, hands down!
We have our work cut out for us.  We couldn’t do it without the amazing faculty that give of themselves and their time and their expertise.  It never ceases to amaze me how many deeply caring – and interesting and inspiring – individuals we have that work with our students and support our McNair mission.  It is truly humbling.  So, I’d like to put forth a charge not only for our current scholars, but our future scholars as well.  Appreciate this opportunity and take full advantage of it.  McNair is special.  You are special.  Let us help you keep moving forward in your journey.  Get your Ph.D. and then give back.  Do GREAT things and then help others do GREAT things.  Together we can elevate the McNair mission to new heights.