McNair Scholar’s research aims to affect identity of African American women

Kate Schwanke

Leia Belt, a senior who is double majoring in psychology and sociology, is using her rare opportunity as a McNair Scholar to research creative and innovative ways to benefit African American women and help to establish their personal identities. 

Belt learned about the McNair Scholarship Program at Kent State through her roommate’s mother. She was interested in finding students who looked like her and were going into the same field as she wanted to, Belt said.

“It took off from there,” she said. “I had an interview, I wrote some essays and they wanted me (in the program).”

Throughout her undergraduate career at Kent State, Belt said she learned many important lessons, the greatest being the power of her voice. 

“If you feel wronged, or even if you feel that something is great, just to speak up,” Belt said. “Students have so much power and young people have so much power but a lot of times we’re like ‘oh you’re young be quiet,’ but I have really realized how much power we have in our voices.” 

The McNair Scholarship Program was established in 1986 and is named in memory of physicist and astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. This program is an opportunity for first generation, low-income undergraduate students to prepare for graduate school and doctoral studies. Most of the students involved in this program are from underrepresented groups as well.

The Kent State McNair Program began in 1999 through a grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The program assists students with graduate school costs including application fees and tuition fees and takes them to a few conferences every year around the United States. Administered through the Graduate Studies program, 26 students receive this opportunity each year. 

Each McNair Scholar works on research in their specified field of work. Belt is currently working on two projects. The first is focused on stress and anxiety amongst African American adolescent girls, and she is currently using an app developed by Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychology. Belt was an undergraduate researcher on the Neal Barnett’s app research team. 

“The girls go through a 5-week intervention and on the third week, they receive an app and they get to create their own theme song,” Belt said. “You have these negative thoughts in your head and so we teach the girls how to take those negative thoughts and turn them into positive thoughts.” 

The app sends push notifications throughout the day and attaches a survey each time to see how stressed they are. If they reach above a certain threshold, their personal theme song is played. The theme song is the girl’s favorite song but with a twist on the words, making it apply to their own lifestyle. The girls take the survey again and the stress scores go down, Belt said. 

The second study, previously called “Black Women’s Reproductive Health Study,” is now being reconstructed into studying how black women create their own identity in society today, she said. 

 “I think it’s important that people define themselves and have their own identity and explore that,” Belt said. “As marginalized people, we’re forced into a box of what we’re supposed to be, so I think it’s empowering to be able to bust out of the box.”

Associate Professor Nicole Rousseau, the faculty mentor who has been helping Belt, said her mentee has grown into a wonderful student over the years since they met when Belt was a freshman. 

“I think mentorship is important in every stage,” Rousseau said. “I try to kind of keep my eye open and give her a heads up on opportunities and resources and introduce her to other people who will be helpful in her world.” 

Senetta Swinea, the Program Coordinator for Kent State’s McNair Scholarship program, said Belt has gotten a chance to present her research to many faculty members at Kent State who have given her great feedback. 

“A lot of times when you’re presenting research, especially at a national conference, you don’t get to receive feedback from a faculty member as an undergraduate student,” Swinea said. 

James Duban, an associate professor in the English department at The University of North Texas, congratulated Belt on her research and said she presented it as if she were an associate professor at a recent conference in Texas, Swinea said. 

As a McNair Scholar, Belt believes she has been given a very rare opportunity. 

“The scholarship means to me that even though there’s groups of people that systematically aren’t supposed to make it to be doctors or whatever that we can and that there is a family that supports us to get there,” Belt said. 

Contact Kate Schwanke at [email protected].

Editor’s note: Due to a reporter’s error, the story has been changed to reflect that Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett, professor of psychology, is the developer of the app and Leia Belt is an undergraduate researcher on the project.