The LEAP Challenge Blog

In the Lab, the Library, and the Community: Undergraduate Research for Underserved Student Success in Any Field

This post was coauthored by Jolina Kwong Caputo, associate director of the Portland State University Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, and Heather McCambly, who received her MA in Educational Leadership and Policy from Portland State and was a McNair Scholar.

Since 2003, the Portland State University (PSU) Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program (“McNair”) program has provided research opportunities for students at the state’s largest, most diverse, urban public institution. Most PSU McNair Scholars do not live on campus, many have attended more than one college or university, and all of them are balancing complex personal, professional, and family responsibilities. Such “nontraditional” student characteristics are often considered barriers to participation in high-impact practices like undergraduate research, but the program at PSU has, each year, successfully engaged students from all backgrounds and family or work obligations in in-depth, full-time, scholarly research with university faculty. The PSU McNair Scholars Program has worked with the university’s nontraditional and underserved students in academic fields ranging from biology to history in order to build on their academic strengths, with incredible results as measured by scholars’ graduation rates and graduate school enrollments.

McNair is somewhat unique among undergraduate research programs in the opportunity it provides to underrepresented students from all disciplines to engage in meaningful, original research. This type of research experience prepares students not only for graduate education, but for the essential tasks of critical thinking, knowledge creation, research and empirical design, and both collaborative and independent writing.

There are some signs that the national McNair program—like many federally funded initiatives—is evolving. In the most recent competition for TRIO funding from the US Department of Education, applicants were encouraged to address the promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education by providing activities that demonstrated new ideas and methodologies to increase the number and proportion of students prepared for graduate study in STEM; and to develop a plan to increase the number of STEM majors from groups traditionally underrepresented in those fields. The inclusion of this STEM priority encourages applicants to focus on participants who are pursuing graduate study and careers in STEM.

Providing structure to leverage the strengths of the McNair program to increase equity in the STEM fields—an essential goal for our students and our nation—is a timely and valuable step.  As a long-time McNair leader at PSU and a former PSU McNair Scholar in the humanities, this shift prompted us to reflect on the program’s unique contribution to the landscape of postsecondary programming. While the “competitive preference” in its current form certainly does not preclude programs from funding non-STEM students, this is an appropriate moment to emphasize the need for a continued balance between this critical STEM priority and the preservation of the program’s provision of discipline-inclusive undergraduate research opportunities to underserved students. Given the more prominent presence of programming focused on providing undergraduate research experiences in STEM fields, it is important that access to the McNair program remains available in the future to emerging mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, and humanities scholars alike.

As an example, the PSU McNair program’s approach to undergraduate research not only reflects all of the “key elements”  for high-impact practices identified by George Kuh—including close interactions with faculty, public demonstration of learning and competence at a culminating symposia, and deep engagement with issues of power, privilege, and diversity—it also infuses its work with PSU’s culture of community-based learning. McNair scholars from all disciplines at PSU have shown the value of an undergraduate research experience, including Zachary Wong (who just completed an MA at Columbia University), whose 2011 research focused on practices that indigenous cultural leaders can use as a model for the revitalization of language and culture, and Joseph Bennett (who completed his BS at PSU in 2014), whose 2013 community-based research investigated how food access policies and programs in Portland are meeting the needs of adults with mobility disabilities.

As the federal government, foundations, and individual institutions invest in these programs, it is important to remember that the benefits of undergraduate research for underserved students is not restricted by a scholar’s discipline. The prospects of increased social mobility for underrepresented and first-generation students are an important benefit of undergraduate research participation in any discipline.[1] By participating in a high-quality undergraduate research program, a student develops a recognition of the original knowledge she can produce and add to the already established conversation in the discipline, thus developing a “scholar identity.” As a scholar, the student takes ownership of her ideas and finds value and satisfaction in her academic work. In turn, this academic connection provides the student with a sense of belonging within a discipline and promotes a respect for and an increased affiliation with the university at which he or she had the experience.[2] Additionally, undergraduate research can inspire and motivate students to continue to graduate school and enter research careers.[3]

In recognition of the value of undergraduate research to its diverse student body, PSU recently expanded what was once a McNair-only event to an all-discipline undergraduate research symposium that welcomes all university undergraduates to showcase and receive feedback on their original research. This sort of expansion is a wonderful example of how a college or a program can serve today’s students—both STEM and non-STEM—who are facing more and greater “wicked problems” in their local and global communities. We hope that McNair and similar programs delivering transformative learning experiences to underserved students will, like PSU, expand the reach of high-impact practices that support the development of agency and “scholar identities” among underserved students striving to lay a foundation for their own contributions to their communities, science, technology, the arts, industry, and beyond.


[1] (For more information on undergraduate research program participation, see Hu, Scheuch, Schwartz, Gaston Gayles and Li’s (2008) Reinventing undergraduate education: Engaging college students in research and creating activities; and Ishiyama and Hopkins’ (2002/2003) Assessing the impact of a graduate school preparation program on first-generation, low-income college students at a public liberal arts university.)

[3] (For more information on the effect of undergraduate research on student outcomes see, Hathaway, Nagda, & Gregerman’s (2002) The relationship of undergraduate research participation to graduate and professional education pursuit: An empirical study and Ash Merkel’s (2003) Undergraduate Research at the Research Universities.)