The Life of Ronald E. McNair
North Dakota State University (NDSU) TRIO McNair Scholars Program (MSP) was established by Congress, funded by the United States Department of Education, in memory for astronaut and physicist Ronald E. McNair, after his death in the Challenger Space Shuttle accident on January 28, 1986. This program was created to continue his legacy to inspire future scholars to achieve their academic dreams. MSP provides rigorous undergraduate research for first-generation, income eligible and underrepresented students for successful participation in graduate education, achievement of the doctorate, and entrance into careers where a doctorate is a prerequisite. NDSU is one of the 14 original universities chosen in 1989 to host a Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (MSP).
With a can-do attitude, Ron was an exceptional achiever who achieved greatness in his life. He lived by three principles in his life: Discipline – push yourself and stay motivated; hanging it over the edge – take risks; and rejecting worry – it doesn’t do any good to fret about items out of your control. This helped him to focus his energy in positive ways and continue to strive toward his dreams.
During Ron’s senior year of high school, he shared in a paper assignment what his life would be like in 10 years. He wrote he would have a Ph.D. in Physics. This was a lofty goal for an impoverished scholar born in the 1950’s who attended a small segregated school in Lake City, SC, while earning money as a tobacco cropper.
Throughout Ron’s life, he had guidance from others to help him realize his academic gifts. In high school, a chemistry teacher introduced him to the Summer Science Institute at Virginia Union University, where Ron was exposed to rigorous science curriculum and research. While at the institute, a professor encouraged him to consider a Ph.D. As an undergraduate student, he gave up on his physics major, however, his counselor inspired him to continue with this dream. His mentors had a way of being in the right place and time for him.
Ron graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) in 1971. That fall, he started his doctoral program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. During his last year in graduate school, his duffel bag was stolen which included three years of his research results. Quitting was not an option for Ron; for the next three months, he persevered and repeated his experiments and replaced the missing data results. He attained his Ph.D. in laser physics in 1976.
After graduation, Ron took a job with Hughes Research Laboratories; he worked there for three years. After work one day, Ron received a brochure from NASA looking for astronauts. This sparked his interest – he applied for the program.
Over 11,000 people applied to become an astronaut with NASA for the 35 positions. Ron was selected for the program in January, 1978. From his high school days of racing home to watch Star Trek, he would be the next one to go into space.
While in training at NASA, Ron taught physics at Texas Southern University. Then in 1984, he experienced his first flight in space becoming the second African-American in space as a mission specialist. He was in space for eight days. He wanted to go into space one more time before he returned to teaching. His chance would come on January 28, 1986, on the Challenger Mission 51-L, but tragedy struck 73 seconds into the flight. The crew of seven, which included Christa McAuliffe (the teacher who was to teach lessons to students from space), will be sadly missed.
From this tragedy came the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program in 1989, to provide disadvantaged college students with effective preparation for doctoral study.
NDSU TRIO MSP has served 287 scholars since the inception of the program. We have a success rate of 29% of the scholars earning their doctoral degree; 44 scholars have earned their Ph.D. and 40 scholars earned their professional doctoral degree. In addition, we have had 100 scholars earn their master’s degree. TRIO works!
“Anyone can do what I’ve done. If you are willing to apply yourself and work hard, you can achieve even more than I have. If you will commit yourself to your dreams, you can go as high as you like. Take my word for it: the sky is not the limit,” stated Ronald E. McNair.