McNair Scholars undergraduate research program supports minorities, first-generation students

Isabel Illig

Kody Elsayed grew up with a personal experience of the cost of opioid addiction and has used that to inspire his journey to graduate school.

The McNair Scholars Program helps “first-generation, low-income, undergraduate students, from groups underrepresented in graduate schools” who are seeking research experience for doctoral study, according to its website. 

The program was established by Congress in memory of Ronald E. McNair, a physicist and astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion. 

“In his brief but brilliant career, he proved that neither poverty nor discrimination could defeat a determined individual,” according to the McNair Scholars website.

Elsayed, a senior public relations major minoring in marketing and economics, is one of 15 McNair scholars chosen this year. As a gay Arabic man and a first-generation college student, he is exactly whom the fund was made for.

Trumbull County, where he grew up, was reported as the seventh hardest-hit county in the nation for opioid overdoses in 2018. Elsayed’s brother, a recovering heroin addict, inspired him to learn more about the epidemic and the role healthcare providers play in it.

“I grew up in a household where he was a user and I watched him battle his demons and go through this process,” Elsayed said.

Elsayed’s research is a study of the communication between health care providers and families of misusers. His hypothesis is still in the beginning stages, but he believes there is a gap or lack of messaging that if fixed could lead to improvement of communication efforts. .

“For some people, their loved one who is using is their parent, their grandparent, their landlord, their partner, their manager; it might be themselves,” Elsayed said. “The story looks different for everyone, and that’s something I’m trying to remember when I’m doing that research.”

The McNair program allowed him to get started on undergraduate research while he is going into his senior year.

“It sets me apart from most undergraduate students who are trying to go right into their masters,” Elsayed said. “Not a lot of students get to do actual publishable research and present at conferences.”

Elsayed knew early in his college career that he wanted to end up teaching at a university and doing research, which requires a master’s degree. 

Like Elsayed, Cassette LeShaunne Pitmon knew he wanted to get his master’s degree early on as well. 

“When I came to Kent, I knew I was going for air traffic control, I knew I was going to study abroad and I knew I was going to graduate school,” said Pitmon, a senior air traffic control management majoring and minoring in unmanned aircraft systems and aircraft dispatch. 

Without financial support from family members, Pitmon wasn’t sure how he was going to afford graduate school. Beginning his freshman year, he would prowl halls to look for flyers that might help, like career fairs, study abroad and grad school, which was how he stumbled upon the McNair program.

“I was on my own applying for school and scholarships, and overall success in college was hard to think about for me because I was doing most of it on my own,” Pitmon said.

He is using his time in the program to research fuel cells and electrolyzers which, Pitmon said, both converts hydrogen into electricity and electricity into hydrogen. These technologies, though underdeveloped, have been used by organizations such as NASA, where they make hydrogen and oxygen in space.

“The transportation sector has the highest usage or consumption of energy in the United States,” Pitmon said.

After graduate school, he wants to start his own transportation company where he will try to make the industry more sustainable and use the kind of technologies he is now studying.

The McNair program at Kent State is one of four in all of Ohio. The other universities that offer it are the University of Cincinnati, Cleveland State University and Bowling Green State University. 

Students work both during the academic year and a Summer Research Institute run by University College and in cooperation with the Honors College.

During the eight-week summer program, scholars work with a faculty mentor researching their chosen topic. It is finished with the McNair Research Symposium where they will present their projects to the university community.

The McNair program provides free housing during summer if needed, a $2,800 stipend, the opportunity to present research at local and regional conferences and field trips to graduate facilities in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere.

“Many first generation students don’t have confidence that they can be successful in a PhD program,”said Liz Piatt, director of the McNair Scholars Program at Kent State. “We work really hard in McNair to develop the scholar identity so that our students see themselves as we [the staff] see them—as high achieving students who are very competitive PhD program applicants.”

Corrections were made to the original version of this story. 

Isabel Illig covers research and hiring. Contact her at [email protected]