Carl McNair is the founder of the McNair Scholars Program, a national program funded at over 200 universities across the country, including MSU. This program seeks to motivate first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Since it was established in 1987, the McNair Scholars Program has provided over 700,000 students with financial aid and academic opportunities.
McNair was inspired to create this program because of the achievements of his brother, Dr. Ronald E. McNair, one of the seven astronauts who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986. McNair, who himself has earned both a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Business Administration, takes pride in the academic and professional success that he and his brother achieved despite facing prejudice while growing up in segregated Lake City, S.C. He aims to extend these opportunities to others who may not otherwise receive higher education. He believes that when groups of people come together and embrace diversity, success is possible as demonstrated by the diverse crew aboard the Challenger, “All [came] together for the common good of the mission,” McNair Said.
McNair brought his message to MSU in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated as a national holiday on Monday, Jan. 20. Dr. King inspired the nation through his actions and words, notably in his “I Have a Dream” speech. McNair recognizes the importance of role models to keep the dreams of groups and individuals alive. “Sometimes we have a dream, and we self-select ourselves out of that dream,” he said. Through programs like the McNair Scholars Program, participants are encouraged by fellow McNair Scholars to always continue to pursue their goals.
McNair shared a story of Ronald’s perception of “Star Trek” and how the show encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut. Specifically, Ronald was motivated by the character Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, an African-American woman who brought diversity to the crew of the Enterprise. McNair said that he and his brother watched Star Trek as kids and observed this ideal situation where “all kinds of folks, including aliens, were working together.”
Dr. King contributed to Nichols’ role in “Star Trek” as well. At one point, she considered leaving the show, until Dr. King pointed out that by representing an African-American woman in a position of power, she was an inspiration to many. Nichols remained part of the cast and later became a recruiter for NASA, an example of, according to McNair, “how Martin Luther King’s influence impacted all of us, whether we know it or not.”
While equality has improved since McNair and Ronald were young, McNair recognized it is still important to create opportunities for minorities to succeed in STEM fields and otherwise. In regards to affirmative action and similar programs, McNair said, “Once you get in, you have to perform. All you need is a chance.” Ronald was a classic example of this. He dreamed of being an astronaut, and prepared by studying hard throughout his education eventually earning his Ph.D in physics from MIT, even before him going to space seemed like a realistic goal. When the opportunity arose, Ronald was prepared and qualified for the role.
McNair left his audience with a message that honors the ideals of Dr. King: it is imperative to embrace diversity in this country in order to reach our full potential. The story of his brother will continue to be an inspiration to individuals who possess similar dreams.