ASHLAND — Jeffrey Proulx was in his mid-30s when, walking through the Southern Oregon University campus, he spotted a sign for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Up until that moment, Proulx had never considered the possibility that his life on a college campus could extend beyond a master’s degree, that perhaps research was his calling. The sign advertising what is commonly referred to as the McNair Scholars Program, however, piqued his interest.

“So I walked in the door and asked, ‘What’s all this about?’ ” he recalls.

That was in 2007. A decade later, Proulx — who now holds a doctoral degree — credits the McNair Scholars Program as the catalyst for a career path that’s landed him at Oregon Health & Sciences University, where he is a postdoctoral fellow in the neurology department and currently studying the effects of culturally specific mental health care to Native Americans.

To Dee Southard, the director of SOU’s McNair program, Proulx’s success — and the importance of his work — is exactly what the McNair Scholars Program is all about, which is why Southard, an associate professor, was elated when she found out on Sept. 13 that, despite concerns about its future, the program had been selected for another five years of funding.

According to SOU Director of Community and Media Relations Joe Mosley, a letter of notification from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that SOU’s funding proposal received 108 out of 110 possible points from evaluators, and the program was approved for a grant of $243,878 per year for the five-year grant cycle, which runs through 2022.

“On a personal level, I was delighted, and of course it was wonderful news that we could continue working with these highly motivated students,” Southard said. “The decision to continue to fund the nation’s McNair Scholars programs at this point in time illustrates a continuing commitment from our elected federal officials and the U.S. Department of Education to support undergraduate students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and who have demonstrated strong academic potential.”

A federal TRIO program funded at 151 institutions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the McNair Scholars Program is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and “other scholarly activities.” McNair participants are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education — in Proulx’s case, Native American — and have demonstrated strong academic potential.

The program is named after Ronald E. McNair, an expert in laser physics who became a Presidential Scholar, a Ford Foundation Fellow, a National Fellowship Fellow and a NATO Fellow before being selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978. He became the second African-American to fly in space in 1984 and died two years later when the U.S. Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch.

“To put this in perspective, in the United States there are only 161 of these programs as of now,” Southard said. “First of all, for us in Southern Oregon, to have one of these prestigious programs is an amazing thing, so it’s a privilege to have a program here. On a national level, on any given day, there are at least 20 million undergraduates. There are only about 4,000 McNair Scholars in the nation on any given day. So this is a real rare honor, an opportunity for them to be affiliated with this prestigious and successful program.”

SOU’s McNair program serves 28 undergraduate students each year. Essentially, Southard said, it’s a graduate school preparatory program designed to help promising scholars complete their undergraduate degrees, enroll in graduate school and move toward a future that hopefully includes doctoral studies. Each scholar attends two 50-minute classes per week and works one-on-one with both Southard, who holds a doctoral degree, and a faculty mentor in their discipline with a doctoral degree. Scholars learn how to write a research proposal during the spring term, and over the summer, provided their proposal is “viable,” they embark on an eight-week research project that is covered by a $2,800 federal stipend. Each scholar then publicly presents his or her results on campus and writes a journal article.

“Those elements are helpful when applying to graduate school,” Southard said, “and it does give them a taste of real-world, full-time research.”

Which is a big reason why, she added, 97 percent of SOU’s McNair Scholars have been accepted into graduate programs. Additionally, she noted, the program has produced six doctoral and 59 master's degrees, with another 44 scholars currently enrolled in graduate school pursuing their master’s degrees or doctorates.

“Our model is based on empirically proven, scientifically proven best practices for assisting low-income, first-generation students to do well not only at the undergraduate level but to understand how to apply to graduate school and then also to be prepared for what they’re going to encounter when they go to graduate school,” Southard said.

Proulx can attest to that, having acquired both a master’s and a doctorate after going through SOU’s McNair program.

“(The McNair program) not only gave me the inspiration to do it, but also provided the foundation and the tools to know more about graduate school, to learn about the professionalism of being in academia and giving me the training to do that,” he said.

Proulx got an up close look at the legacy of the McNair Scholars Program during the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows at the National Academies of Sciences building in Washington, D.C. There, Proulx was tasked with presenting Ronald McNair’s brother and McNair Scholars Program CEO Carl McNair with a plaque. During the presentation, Proulx asked all the McNair scholars in the audience to stand. About a third of the room did as tears welled up in Carl McNair’s eyes.

“It all goes back to Ronald McNair and that vision of wanting to remember his legacy through us, through these new scholars,” Proulx said. “If he can give us a little advantage that he didn’t have, maybe we can go far and be astronauts, too.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.