McNair Scholars—the long view

A Regents Professor reflects on the program’s power to change lives and energize research

Regents Professor Karen Seashore had already mentored three McNair Scholars over her career when, last spring, she got a call about a possible fourth. A new applicant’s interests seemed like a great fit for Seashore, the campus McNair director told her. He hoped she would take a look.

Karen Seashore and Mulki Naleye
Regents Professor Karen Seashore, left, served as a faculty mentor to McNair Scholar Mulki Naleye, who explored school choices of Somali parents.

Mentoring a McNair Scholar is a solid commitment that runs right through the summer, which is precious time for research and projects that fall by the wayside during the academic year. Seashore’s last McNair experience was 11 years ago. But when she met Mulki Naleye, she was in.

“Mulki is one of the most determined people I have met,” says Seashore. “She really impressed me.”

Naleye’s family, from rural Somalia, immigrated after several years in Mogadishu. Today she is a mother of nine who has completed a bachelor’s degree and is working on a certificate in adult education. She heard about the McNair Scholars program at a weekly meeting at the Student Parent Help Center.

Naleye wanted to understand the factors that influence Somali immigrant parents’ school choices for their children. Navigating those choices herself, she had been able to find almost nothing on the topic of school choice related to her community. Yet Minnesota has one of the largest Somali immigrant populations in the nation, and it is a culture that places a high value on education.

Seashore is an expert on school choice and verified the gap. She had also directed a small project investigating Somali parents’ engagement with schools about 10 years ago. That project resulted in a doctoral dissertation, “Parental Involvement in Education: A Qualitative Study of Somali Immigrants in the Twin Cities Area,” by Evangeline Nderu. Naleye’s project was a natural extension of it.

Seashore and Naleye had an immediate common interest.

“It was the right time and the right place,” says Seashore. “And Mulki is such an eager student, you almost have to hold her back.”

Exchanges of expertise

Naleye was able to design and carry out a small-scale research project over the summer, interviewing Somali immigrant mothers about their families’ school choices for their elementary-age children. Finding people who agreed to be interviewed and designing the interview questions for both women and men proved difficult, so Naleye decided to focus on mothers. Another challenge was finding time to meet with people during Ramadan, which coincided with the month of July this year.

Mulki Naleye describes her research to Karen Kaler
Naleye described her research to Karen Kaler, wife of President Kaler, at the McNair Scholars poster session.

“At first I thought more than 10 [research subjects], but Karen Seashore knew 10 was enough,” says Naleye. Her interviews took place on playgrounds, at a community center, and in kitchens. They were still in progress when she presented her preliminary findings at the McNair poster session.

Naleye saw wide variation in the school choice experience of the people she interviewed. Variables included the ages and gender of their children, literacy, and English language fluency. She also gained insight on herself as a highly engaged parent. And she learned a lot about research methods.

“Knowing how to do research opens new doors—it gives me a light,” says Naleye. “I know now that I am very interested in student development, and in any community, with all parents.”

Seashore learned a lot, too. Beyond Naleye’s findings, she gained new knowledge and insight about Somalia and about Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community.

“Mulki is so much fun to talk to—so open,” says Seashore. “I could see her growth every week.”

Building on success

Seashore also experienced a stronger McNair Scholars program.

“Eleven years ago, it was basically the student and me,” she says. “This time, Mulki went through a structured program about how to accomplish what you want to do during the time provided. They have real homework and do research on graduate schools.”

Seashore has advised 65 doctoral students and countless master’s students over her career. All her McNair Scholars have gone on to graduate school, she notes with satisfaction.

“McNair, because of its potential for changing lives, has been as rewarding as working with many advanced students,” she says. “Creating more access to graduate education, giving a mentoring experience that increases someone’s confidence that they can go to graduate school, encouraging people to think like a researcher—beyond the technical aspects to meaning—this is why we become professors in the first place!”

Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Gayla Marty and Patrick O’Leary | Winter 2015