McNair Scholars lobby DC virtually for more higher ed funding

This summer was going to be crucial for Areion Allmond ’21.

With a major in biology and society, she had planned to live on campus in student housing to continue her research on the effect of the nutrient choline on children’s cognitive development. This kind of research can make or break a student’s chances of getting accepted into a M.D./Ph.D. program – which is Allmond’s goal.

Her on-campus room and board were to be paid, thanks to her status as a McNair Scholar – a federal program that assists first-generation and low-income college students.

But when COVID-19 hit and students were sent home, the student housing option was out. Moving home meant she wouldn’t be able to focus on her research; instead, she’d be responsible for her 5-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister, while her mother took care of another sister who was dealing with a health emergency. And Allmond didn’t have the funds to pay for her own housing.

She turned to Kristin Dade, director of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at Cornell. “She said, ‘Say no more,’” Allmond said. Dade found McNair funding for Allmond to stay off campus in Ithaca while Allmond’s mother takes care of her siblings. The program also paid the $2,500 she needed to study for and take the MCAT exam. And she received funding from the CARES Act, the U.S. government’s coronavirus relief legislation.

“Because of the funding, I was able to put my all into my research. I was able to finalize materials and documents, and push us forward,” said Allmond. With a double minor in inequality studies and in health and nutrition, she wants to diminish race-based health disparities. “With my leadership skills, and the skills that I developed in the lab, I’m very determined to leave my mark.”

It’s one of many stories 29 Cornell McNair Scholars shared July 21-24, as they paid virtual visits to the offices of U.S. senators and representatives to advocate for more higher-education funding for first-generation and low-income students. The meetings, based on the students’ home states, included staff of lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky); Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York); Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas); Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois); and House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York)

Cornell’s McNair program, administered by the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, is funded by the Department of Education through the Federal TRIO Program. TRIO consists of eight programs that provide support to low-income, first-generation or otherwise disadvantaged high school and college students. As one of those programs, McNair helps prepare undergraduate students to pursue a doctorate in any field.

In the 2018-19 academic year, 56% of McNair Scholars at Cornell were accepted and enrolled in graduate programs upon graduation.

The staff members often recount the students’ experiences as they advocate for funding, said Kristen Adams, Cornell’s director of federal relations. “A personal story resonates 10 times better than ‘here are the facts,’” Adams said. “And the congressional staff seem very appreciative of this.”

Allmond, who’s from Virginia, spoke with staff in the offices of Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. “At first I was nervous,” she said, “but then I was just telling them what this means to me: that this funding helps, and it’s needed.”

The Trump administration has proposed cuts for McNair and TRIO programs for the past several  years. Although funding was slightly up last year, Adams said, “we’re asking for another increase just to get back to where we were in 2011, when all these programs were significantly cut.”

The pandemic, Dade said, has exacerbated the disparities that affect these students in the best of times, erasing their access to housing, academic technology and food security.

“Our students are having to find space within their families’ homes,” she said. “Some of them are packed in one-bedroom apartments that house nine people,” making it tough to find uninterrupted quiet to study. Without McNair stipends, some are unable to pay for cellphones and internet access, which are essential to their academic research.

Said Simon Velasquez, M.A. ’11, McNair Program coordinator, who helped organize the visits with University Relations’ Office of Federal Relations: “When they go on the floor, the members of Congress will hopefully remember these young students’ voices and fight for the funding that their constituents need.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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