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Giants of Academia

Giants of Academia

The most prestigious universities in the world are looking at the McNair Scholars coming out of UCF and asking: How can we make a universal impact like that?

Summer 2021By Robert Stephens

As director of UCF’s academic advancement programs, Michael Aldarondo-Jeffries has attended his share of graduation ceremonies. At one, however, he came not as a UCF staff member but as a guest. Next to him sat his host, the mother of a graduate, squeezing Aldarondo-Jeffries’ hand so tightly that his fingers turned white. Through tears, the mother said of her daughter, “Look at her. A first-generation college graduate. First generation. Do you know what this means?”

And then, over and over, she whispered loud enough for Aldarondo-Jeffries to hear, “You did this for her. You did this for us.”

As the daughter, Geena Ildefonso ’15, walked up to accept her diploma, she was also en route to her next stop: Vanderbilt, where she’s nearing completion of her doctorate in biochemistry. It is not overly dramatic to say there’s no telling where Ildefonso would be if she hadn’t walked into Aldarondo-Jeffries’ office as a UCF undergraduate.

“I was working two jobs, coping with the fact my dad had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and my grades were suffering because I couldn’t handle it all,” Ildefonso says.

Bhimsen Shivamoggi, UCF professor of mathematics, told Ildefonso something she didn’t expect to hear: that she’d be great at mathematical modeling for biomedical research.

“I don’t know what that even means,” she said.

“It means,” Shivamoggi explained, “you could be a candidate for a Ph.D.”

Ildefonso didn’t know what that meant either. She was the first in her family to go to college, which, until she arrived at UCF, was also an ethereal concept — college. Her affinity for math only pushed her deeper into obscurity because there were so few women majoring in the subject.

Shivamoggi walked Ildefonso over to the McNair Scholars office and introduced her to Aldarondo-Jeffries.

“When Michael asked me what I wanted to do, I broke down,” says Ildefonso. “Nobody had really asked me that. I had so much going on and told him, ‘If I could just focus on my academics and learn about research …’ ”

Aldarondo-Jeffries recognized a star in his presence. He also knew more questions loomed: What if she can’t focus on her academics? What will happen to this untapped brilliance?

“He made some calls and helped me find a paid research position on campus,” says Ildefonso. “I’d never heard of the McNair Scholars Program, but that’s what opened a future for me.”

Ildefonso is now one of more than 200 UCF graduates who have completed or are working toward their postgraduate degrees at the world’s most prestigious universities because of the McNair program. Prior to applying for a spot in the program, most of the students didn’t know what it looked like to “do research” or for people from their backgrounds to have a career in academia.

I’m often reminded of the sacrifice that the parents of my students make every day so their children can dream with other big dreamers.
Natalia Leal Toro ’17EdD, assistant director of academic advancement programs

“I met Geena in 2015 but wasn’t aware of her backstory until now,” says Don C. Brunson, assistant dean of Vanderbilt University Graduate School. “We didn’t pursue her as a gesture of sympathy. What we saw was an ambitious researcher who’d been prepared to succeed. That’s what sets UCF’s McNair Scholars apart: grit and determination.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and offered at 151 institutions across the nation, the McNair Scholars Program helps prepare first-generation and traditionally underrepresented college students for doctoral studies. UCF’s program has become the model of “what could be” for underrepresented communities in higher learning.

“The name ‘McNair Scholar’ has opened so many doors for me,” says Melonie Williams-Sexton ’07, who became UCF’s first McNair Scholar to earn her Ph.D. in 2013. “It becomes like a secret code word. The people who run the program at UCF provide a pathway we didn’t know existed.”

Natalia Leal Toro ’17EdD had worked in various roles at other colleges before working with the UCF McNair program as assistant director of academic advancement programs. She has very personal reasons for calling it the most rewarding job she could ever imagine. “These students are capable of thriving academically,” Leal Toro says, “but they need a support system to guide them through challenges.”

Sometimes a student can’t focus because there’s a child to support or a family member is seriously ill. At the same time, the student cannot ignore this expanding reservoir of academic curiosity. Many people in their community have not completed college, let alone grad school, so who can relate to the value of this distant concept known as postgraduate research?

“I’m often reminded of the sacrifice that the parents of my students make every day so their children can dream with other big dreamers,” Leal Toro says.

This is where it becomes personal for Leal Toro. Raised in Colombia, she came to the U.S. at age 11 with her parents. With their encouragement and her own self-discipline, Leal Toro became a first-generation college graduate. But the piece of paper she received on graduation day left her with a difficult reality check: This diploma has been my singular focus, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next.

“I’ve been on the same journey as many students who are driven by the deep sense of responsibility to give back to their families and communities,” Leal Toro says. “They’re brilliant. They just need to be part of a community that understands their burning desire to grow in knowledge and that guides them towards their goals.”

I’m not shy about telling everyone that UCF is the gold standard for the McNair program.
Anitra Douglas-McCarthy, senior director of recruitment at Cornell

And that’s the power of UCF’s deep base of McNair Scholars.

“What they have at UCF is the national model,” says Damon Lewis Williams, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at Northwestern University. “I travel the country to recruit graduate students for our research programs, but I know the McNair Scholars from UCF will come with extra layers of readiness for the rigors of a Ph.D. program. Everyone in the country knows it, so we have to compete for [UCF students].”

UCF’s McNair Scholars are courted by institutions like MIT, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Cornell. Some choose to continue their academic pursuits at UCF. Whether they stay or go, they never completely leave UCF’s McNair family. They refer to Aldarondo-Jeffries and Leal Toro as “my academic dad and mom.” They call “home” on a regular basis. And they become big brothers and sisters to current UCF students in the program.

“I’m not shy about telling everyone that UCF is the gold standard for the McNair program,” says Anitra Douglas-McCarthy, senior director of recruitment at Cornell. “They’ve built a real community of current and former scholars. When students come here from UCF, we know they’ll have the two qualities necessary to be a successful graduate student: They’re resilient and resourceful.”

Deans from around the country and the world find Aldarondo-Jeffries at conferences or they call to ask him how they can build a pipeline McNair program like UCF’s.

“The truth is, there’s no formula or software to make it happen,” says Aldarondo-Jeffries. “It takes people who are willing to invest in each student’s life, to listen to their challenges and to coach them. For Dr. Toro and me, our work always hits very close to home.”

Aldarondo-Jeffries mentions his two children, and how he wants for them what any parent wants: opportunities to grow. Leal Toro talks about watching her son’s kindergarten teacher in an online lesson say something as simple as, “You’re doing a great job.”

“Those few words make my son realize he doesn’t have to be perfect,” she says. “He’s smart. He’s valued. That’s what Michael and I get to do every day for students who will someday cure viruses and explore the limits of space.”

The McNair family of students will also influence the communities where their journeys started: low-income and underserved neighborhoods where just one postgraduate degree can show young students how far school can take them.

“Just like an athlete who goes on to fame, they become all-stars in their communities,” says Aldarondo-Jeffries. “They show everyone what is possible with advanced education.”

The father of one recent Ph.D. recipient was inspired enough to enter college decades after putting his own academic dream on hold. After watching her daughter fall in love with research, the mother of another McNair Scholar is looking to enroll at UCF and start her own journey. More bright stars ready to emerge.

“Stories like those,” says Aldarondo-Jeffries, “are what excite me when I wake up every morning.

5 Standouts in UCF’s McNair Family

Hardeo Chin ’17 ’20MS

Major at UCF: Aerospace Engineering
Postgraduate: Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering at UCF

“When you come from an immigrant family, you’re earning a degree for the entire family. It’s a very big deal. My father is from Jamaica and my mother is from Guyana, so their circumstances prevented them from going to college despite their intelligence. Dad always built model planes and cars in the garage, which might have something to do with my interest in supersonic travel. But if I hadn’t known about the McNair program, I wouldn’t have gotten this far. It’s like a second family to me.”

Geena Ildefonso ’15

Major at UCF: Mathematics
Postgraduate: Ph.D. in Computational Biology at Vanderbilt

“When my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer during my freshman year at UCF, I’d go with him to the medical appointments, but we didn’t know what the doctors were talking about. It made me as curious as I was frustrated. I found out through McNair that I could use math to open doors to an understanding of medicine. Now, when my mother is sick, I ask questions on her behalf, and some doctors look at me stereotypically and wonder how I know all of this.”

George Walters-Marrah ’20

Major at UCF: Molecular Microbiology
Postgraduate: Pursuing Ph.D. in Biophysics at Stanford

“I’m not sure anyone in my family or community saw this coming. Me? A scientist? My mom still asks me, ‘Do you enjoy what you’re doing?’ I assure her, ‘Yes, I really do enjoy it.’ My enthusiasm is even greater because of the people in UCF’s McNair program. They’ve always supported my dream. They’re the reason I’ve made it this far. So I’m always available to do for others what they’ve done for me. A lot of students just need to know about the program. If they’re like me, they’ll be amazed at where it can lead them.”

Shekinah Fashaw-Walters ’15

Major at UCF: Biomedical Sciences and Public Affairs
Postgraduate: Ph.D. in Health Services Research at Brown

“There were times when I questioned my pursuit of a Ph.D. because of imposter syndrome. It takes a mental and physical toll to be a first-generation, lower-income woman of color in an Ivy League environment. I’d call Michael and Natalia at random times to hear them remind me that I belong. Now I’m taking a faculty position at the University of Minnesota in health policy and management. As excited as I am about research, I’m even more excited to mentor underrepresented students so they can see what’s possible in the world of research and academia.”

Melonie Williams-Sexton ’07

Major at UCF: Psychology and Political Science
Postgraduate: Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience Psychology at Vanderbilt

“In the classes I teach at Valencia, students will say, ‘You seem so happy. How did you become a professor?’ They don’t typically see an African American woman with a Ph.D. teaching 100- and 200-level courses. I love being a role model of what they can be. One student from Colombia wasn’t getting much support from friends and family, so I asked the McNair team at UCF to give us a tour of campus. She entered the program and is now starting work toward a Ph.D. I love being at the front end of journeys like that — journeys similar to my own.”