Snapshots of Scholars

It has been nine years since Congress created the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, in honor of physicist and astronaut Ronald E. McNair who died in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

The thriving program, which prepares underprivileged, academically gifted undergraduates for doctoral studies, seems a fitting tribute to McNair, an African-American scientist who beat the odds of "crushing poverty" to earn a Ph.D. in physics at M.I.T. and become the second African-American to fly in space.

five students huddle around bench outside look at magazine
Emily Wiley

McNair scholars enjoy a break from their summer conference presentations. Seated from left: Juliet Iwelumor, Syleena Guilford, and Marie Krouse. Standing from left: Keresha Deanes, Oneximo Gonzales.

On a late July weekend, more than 200 undergraduate students from over 50 colleges and universities nationwide, gathered for the 13th annual Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program Summer Research Conference at Penn State. The McNair Scholars, as they're called, presented oral and poster presentations to a national audience, met with graduate school representatives from across the nation, and networked with professionals in their chosen fields.

Keynote speaker Julian Earls, director of NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center spoke of his friendship with McNair and encouraged the young scholars to pursue "excellence without excuses" and not let any obstacles discourage them.

Writer Rebecca Hirsch sat down with two McNair Scholars from Penn State to learn more about their in-depth research projects and their hopes for their futures.

At the boundary of culture and human rights

McNair Scholar Juliet Iwelumor smiles when asked how people react to her research. "'I don't want to hear about it.' I get that a lot," says Iwelumor, her smile fading. "But people do need to hear it, because it's happening. Two million girls every year go through this and there's still no change. None."

On Saturday, July 30th, Iwelumor—a Human Development and Family Studies major at Penn State—presented her research on female circumcision, a form of genital mutilation practiced in at least 26 African countries, including Iwelumor's homeland of Nigeria. Describing how the ritual is performed under crude conditions on unanaesthetized infants, girls and women Iwelumor explained that common after-effects include menstrual problems, infertility, difficulty during childbirth, and psychological trauma.

Iwelumor became interested in the subject as a child in Lagos, Nigeria, where her grandfather—a "tribal chief and educated man"—approved of circumcision for his daughters. Women in the family who have undergone the procedure, including Iwelumor's mother, remain advocates of the practice, she adds.

"When I began to ask questions about it, nobody had a set reason for doing it. That intrigued me," says Iwelumor. "My grandfather was a learned man. But when it came to his culture, he just wasn't enlightened. How do you tell people to change?"

two women in suits outside
Emily Rowlands

Krouse and Iwelumor discuss their research projects and share presentation tips.

Iwelumor hopes that her research will help bring about such a change. Under the supervision of Cassandra Veney, assistant professor of African and African American Studies and Women's Studies, Iwelumor is reviewing literature and poring over past research on the origins and persistence of the practice, hoping to better understand the distinction between cultural traditions and individual rights. She hopes to research educational programs or economic incentives that could lessen the incidence of circumcision without undermining cultural traditions. "The goal is not to eradicate it but to understand and slowly change the process." The way circumcision is currently practiced, explains Iwelumor, "people do not have that right to say, 'yes, I want this' or 'no, I don't.' Women are shunned or ostracized if they don't go through this."

Iwelumor is about to start her senior year in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is looking ahead to graduate school. Her hope is to study International Health and conduct field research on health issues—including AIDS, contraception and economic development—that affect women in third world countries. "I feel like I'm one of those women who should be out there empowering women," Iwelumor says.

School violence and the media

"I've always been intrigued by criminal behavior," says Marie Krouse, a McNair scholar and Penn State senior, majoring in Crime, Justice and Law. "Lately I've been interested in juvenile delinquency. That's where criminal behavior starts."

Working with Laurie Scheuble, senior lecturer in Sociology, Krouse has focused her research on media reports of school violence, particularly the use of crime data in newspaper reporting on the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. She has found that very few articles reported that school-related crime was steadily declining at the time of the shooting. Instead, Krouse says, reporters often grouped Columbine with other selected incidents of school violence, misleading readers into believing that crime in schools was on the rise. Far from being part of a trend, she says, "Columbine was not typical of any other school violence."

Krouse also discovered that reporters tried to appeal to readers' emotions with the use of words like massacre, siege and suicide mission. "A lot of research has been done saying that the media is trying to instill fear," she says. As proof, she points out that while violence in society was declining, media reporting of violence rose by 600 percent. Krouse believes that reporters should stick to the facts. "I would like what is published to be representative of reality. People's perception can be changed by what they read in the paper. They become concerned. They get in touch with politicians. If the politicians want to be reelected, they have to make these people happy."

The unfortunate result, she says, is that policies are targeted toward one highly unusual incident, like Columbine. Krouse argues, "Policies should be examined to determine if these changes are only being made as a result of isolated incidents of school violence—such as Columbine—or are they a result of actual crime data analysis." She points to post-Columbine mandates for clear plastic backpacks, metal detectors and security guards. "These solutions are not the only way to prevent school violence. There are other more complex issues, such as adolescent behavior and parental supervision, that should be examined."

In her final year as an undergraduate, Krause will be taking upper level criminology classes, applying to graduate school, and continuing research on school violence. While she hopes to be a professor someday, she hopes to first have hands-on experience along the way, working with poor or troubled youth, to better understand the problems that lead to criminal behavior.

"You can't really stop crime," she admits. "But I want to be able to experience the real problems and help focus research on how to help."

Juliet Iwelumor is a senior in human development and family studies major. She can be reached at jia111@psu.edu. Marie Krouse is a senior in the crime, justice, and law major. She can be reached at mxk420@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 01, 2005