When Whitney Supianoski talks to underrepresented UW-Whitewater students interested in graduate school, a lot of them say they’re thinking about being doctors or lawyers.
But that’s often because that’s all they know, Supianoski said.
Supianoski refers to this as an exposure gap. Students from less privileged backgrounds may not have any idea what a chief information officer or psychotherapist is, for example.
Therefore, they don’t pursue those fields, she said.
This contributes to a lack of diversity in fields that require graduate school, she said.
Supianoski is the UW-Whitewater coordinator for the McNair Scholars Program, which aims to get more students from underrepresented populations—such as students of color, low-income students or first-generation students—into graduate-level education.
About 4 percent of University of Wisconsin System doctorates in 2014-15 were awarded to students from underrepresented racial groups.
Nationally, “these groups were particularly underrepresented in biological and agricultural sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, physical and earth sciences, and engineering fields,” according to a survey from the Council of Graduate Schools.
The McNair program is in its 25th year at UW-Whitewater and recently received from the U.S. Department of Education enough grant money—$1.2 million—to run for the next five years.
The program gets enough funding to work with 30 undergraduate juniors and seniors, one of whom is junior finance major Miguel Miranda, who grew up in Palmyra.
Research is a big part of being a McNair scholar. Miranda’s research project looks to measure a practical benefit of diversity in the banking world. He’s studying if Latinos who go to Latino-owned banks are more financially literate than those who go to other banks.
Beyond the research, the McNair program provides networking and lecturing opportunities, graduate school visits and professional development. In some cases, McNair scholars have graduation school application fees waived, Supianoski said.
One of the most important parts of the program is the mentor pairing with professors, Supianoski said.
Miranda said he sees benefits in professors becoming better at working with diverse student populations.
“They might have more cultural knowledge,” he said. “They might be more competent in learning about other peoples’ backgrounds.
“It’s not just seeing every student as the same.”
The McNair program is named after Ronald E. McNair, a black astrophysicist who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986.
Ten years earlier, when he was 26 years old, he’d earned his doctorate in physics. Supianoski called McNair’s story “pretty incredible” in part because of what he achieved as a black man in the 1970s.
Students of color, low-income students and first-generation students face barriers that hinder their academic potential, Supianoski said. The McNair program finds these students opportunities they might have missed before.
Some of her students have had both parents die in the last five years. Some are foster children who arrived at college with just one suitcase fitting all their possessions. Some are supporting their families. Some are parents themselves but are still getting 3.8 GPAs, Supianoski said.
These students are becoming McNair scholars and going to top research institutions nationally, she said.
People have told her the program changed the trajectory of their lives.
“It blows you away,” Supianoski said. “That’s the pretty magical thing about this program.”
Supianoski said she sees her work as a “public service.” She comes from a business background and said getting more voices at the table will increase competition and allow for stronger solutions to complex problems, benefiting everyone.
“Two heads are better than one,” she said. “Two heads who are significantly different will come up with a better solution.”
For the scholars, Miranda said, education puts them in a position where their voices can be heard.
“Education is power,” he said.