Texas shield logo

The Power of Community and Connection 

Meet several members of the new Texas McNair Graduate Association
TMGA students
From left: Julia Ceniceros , Estrella Sainburg, Kellen Sharp

During the height of the pandemic—a stressful time of isolation and disconnect for many members of the Longhorn community—Dr. Eric Dieter, executive director in the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity (LCAE), reached out to some graduate students to see about starting a support network and near-peer mentoring program. The idea took off and soon the Texas McNair Graduate Association (TMGA) was formed by a group of graduate students who participated in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program, a Ph.D. pathway program that helps students accomplish their dreams of attending graduate school at top universities across the nation.

Open to all UT Austin graduate students who participated in McNair Scholars programs in schools across the nation, the TMGA provides opportunities for all McNair Scholars alums (about 100 students in nearly 40 graduate programs at UT Austin) to join a community, build upon their professional development and research skills and help undergraduates in the program achieve their graduate school dreams.

We caught up with three members of the TMGA, which is an official student organization sponsored by the LCAE, to learn more about their experiences in the McNair Scholars program, their career ambitions and how they are providing a valuable support network for both graduates and undergraduates.

Estrella Sainburg
Graduate Program: Second-year master’s student, Community and Regional Planning, School of Architecture
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
TMGA Role: Co-president alongside Daniel Acosta

Estrella Sandburg What do you aspire to achieve with the TMGA?

Our mission is to establish and continue to grow a community that helps alumni from the McNair Scholars program stay connected and supported as they transition to and through their graduate program here at the university. When I think of TMGA, the phrase “It takes a village” comes to mind. TMGA is an intentional effort to build that village where people can extend a helping hand for one another as they navigate graduate school.

How did you benefit from the McNair Scholars program?

The McNair Scholars program really opened my eyes to graduate school and helped me learn that this can be an avenue to explore my interests and engage in topics that are of great concern to me. It equipped me with the academic skills to pursue my research as an undergrad and helped me hit the ground running in graduate school.

What are your research interests and career goals?

My current research looks at how to integrate our natural spaces and environments with cities and urban areas, and how to do that equitably and inclusively for people of all backgrounds. I plan to pursue this work in government and academia one day.

Kellen Sharp
Graduate Program: First-year master’s student, Media Studies, Moody College of Communication
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
TMGA Role: Member

Kellen Sharp What benefits does the TMGA bring to graduate students?

I see the TMGA as a collective community where McNair alums of similar backgrounds can come together and share in the experience of navigating grad school. I also see it as a professional development space where we can help each other cultivate different skills and navigate the hidden transcripts of grad school.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with the TMGA?

I participate in the mentorship program, where I can provide students guidance as well as comfort as they get ready to apply for grad school. We meet in coffeeshops and talk about applications, research opportunities and various other aspects of grad school. My mentee just got accepted in a few programs, which is super exciting.

How did you benefit from this program as an undergrad?

I really appreciated the summer seminars, which helped me learn about application materials (what’s in a personal statement vs a purpose statement, etc.) and how to get subsidized for travel and research opportunities. Travel fees are so expensive, and without the McNair Scholars I probably wouldn’t have been able to engage in those opportunities. Also having a group of people to help me understand the process made me feel less alone in combatting that imposter syndrome along the way.

What is your area of research?

I study toxic and/or taboo digital communities, such as incels, the dark web and alpha male podcasts. I look at how these communities discuss themselves online and how to navigate this rhetoric and systematic oppression. As for my career goals, I’d love to be a professor. I want to excel in my field, publish many books and pursue my love for teaching. Watching my students connect the dots and knowing that I helped facilitate that process is what gets me out of bed every morning.

Julia Ceniceros
Graduate Program: Second-year doctoral candidate, Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy
Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas
TMGA Role: Secretary

Julia Cisneros How do McNair alums benefit from this association?

The McNair Scholars program focuses mainly on getting undergrads into graduate school. So, this is a great way to help graduate students continue their journey in higher education. It helps with retention and provides a community for students of similar backgrounds who can encourage each other to keep pushing toward their goals.

What types of activities does the TMGA offer to students?

We meet monthly and get together at social events. We also implement more education-focused activities like writing hours, grant-writing workshops and study groups. It’s a very new program, so we’re still implementing more social and educational events to serve the students’ needs.

How did you as an undergraduate benefit from the McNair Scholars program?

The greatest benefit is having a community and a space for students who don’t traditionally know about the costs of getting into graduate school. It provides a support system where students can feel comfortable asking questions without fear of judgement. As a first-gen student I learned that I wasn’t the only one in my struggles, and that I had to keep holding myself accountable.

More about the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program

A part of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs, McNair Scholars prepares sophomores, juniors and seniors for post-graduate studies. There are currently 187 McNair Scholars programs in institutions of higher learning across the country. Participants are either first-generation college students with financial needs or members of a group traditionally underrepresented in graduate education who have shown strong academic potential. Visit the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity website to apply.

Photographs and reporting by Abbie Bard