Cynthia Fraction’s office has a “wall of love.”
Over her years with the Excel! Research Scholars program at St. Thomas, students, faculty and staff have penned emotional tributes articulating the value of their time in the program and her positive influence in their lives. Outside Fraction’s office, dozens of smiling faces of former students decorate the walls. They represent those who have gone on to earn graduate, doctoral and law degrees, many of them on full scholarships – to the likes of Yale and Brown universities.
“Each of these students has a story,” said Fraction, Excel! director, as she pointed to one after another, detailing many of the obstacles they faced and overcame in their personal and academic journeys. “What’s exciting for me is that they’re learning more than just research. They understand that doing research, learning about graduate school and presenting – it all comes together.”
Since 2007 when it began as the McNair Scholars program at St. Thomas, Excel! has provided an academic enrichment program that helps undergraduate students who are first-generation, low-income or from underrepresented populations to acquire the necessary education, training and experience required to build an academic portfolio vital to successfully gaining graduate school admission and to earning fellowships and funding based on merit.
The university resumed financing the program after McNair Scholars Program funding ended in 2012.
Each year’s group of scholars create their own Living Learning Community that helps connect students in and out of the classroom. Excel! Scholars spend a summer doing funded research with a faculty mentor and use their presentation and research skills to prepare for graduate school and beyond, all assisted by Fraction’s unending abundance of support and encouragement.
“There are many research programs around, but none of them have Ms. Cynthia as the director, and that is what makes Excel! Scholars thrive in their fields,” said Shanea Turner-Smith ’14. “She challenges you to think critically and pushes you to be the best version of yourself.”
“I was impressed by Cynthia asking (students) for more than what was necessary,” said Amy Levad, a theology professor who mentored undergraduate student Sam Figueroa in summer 2018. “It was good to see the students rise to that challenge.”
Dozens of students have gone on to successful academic and post-academic careers, matriculating through graduate and doctoral work at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country.
Beyond serving as inspiration for future scholars, Excel! alumni also have made a point to support current Tommies. Whether it’s returning to campus to meet with students, acting as mentors or helping make connections for graduate school and beyond, “They come back around and help others like themselves,” Fraction said.
That continued cohesion is a result of the true element of family created by the Living Learning Community, students leaning on each other throughout the program’s rigorous nature, and the hallmark trip every spring, We March for Justice, a study tour of the American civil rights movement in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.
We caught up with four alumni to find out where the academic journeys they started here have taken them.
Shanea Turner-Smith ’14
Turner-Smith completed her bachelor’s degree in social work at St. Thomas and earned a fellowship to pursue her master’s degree in social and economic development and policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
After graduating, she became a housing support specialist at Vail Place, a community resource for adults with severe mental illnesses that has helped thousands of people in the Twin Cities community.
Turner-Smith supported “individuals with severe and persistent mental illness [who are] at risk of becoming homeless. My role was to help individuals with rental barriers to secure and maintain affordable housing,” Turner-Smith said.
As she grew her academic resume and transitioned into a working professional, she built on a foundation of personal exploration developed in the Excel! program.
“Excel! is unique in the sense that you have staff and professors to help cultivate your passions on an individual level,” she said. “Excel! allows you to ask any question you have about the world and conduct a research study to find the answer. The question you ask does not have to be directly related to your field of study, and Excel! allows you to go on a personal quest by funding your dreams and passions. For instance, I majored in social work, but instead of researching a common social work topic, such as world hunger, I decided to explore my own identity and conduct research on the multiracial experience at predominately white universities. In a way, it was a journey of healing as I learned that most of my colleagues of two or more races had similar experiences to me, and my research impacted many others by me shining a light on these experiences.”
In December, Turner-Smith returned to St. Thomas as a program director for Student Diversity and Inclusion Services.
Demar Lewis ’11
After studying international business at St. Thomas, Lewis earned his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan and is currently a PhD student in the departments of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. His research focuses on exposing the resilience of trauma, “crime scripts,” and social inequities in American communities that have experienced historical racial or state-sanctioned violence. Lewis’ master’s thesis studied lynching as a national phenomenon with political motivations beyond the scope of racial prejudice.
Lewis recently was accepted into the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Policy Research Scholars program, which supports doctoral students whose research, connection and leadership will help build healthier and more equitable communities.
“When I was a McNair Scholar from 2009-10, life was filled with myriad research writing deadlines, more books and articles than I had time to read, weekly GRE exam prep during the summer and several other deliverables that had to be executed perfectly for us to stay on par with the program’s expectations, in addition to our regular academic course load – in short, life was chaotic,” Lewis said. “But life is always chaotic, and the McNair program helped me develop strategies for effectively managing chaos while producing excellent results.
“It’s been a long journey for me to get here,” he continued. “My experience as a McNair Scholar at St. Thomas continues to give me the strength and inspiration to remain resilient as an early career academic as I strive to finish my coursework and publish articles to advance my doctoral research agenda. I have no doubt that it will continue to serve me as I matriculate into the professoriate in the coming years and pursue my highest professional aspirations.”
Fushcia-Ann Hoover ’09
Hoover grew up loving to create and explore, but midway through her St. Thomas college career she had second thoughts about her major in mechanical engineering, as she lacked the family connections and experiences of many of her peers. The McNair Scholars program helped her rediscover that love of creativity and turn it into a career. As one of the first students in the program, she found support and mentorship from Fraction, then-director Lawrence T. Potter, and School of Engineering faculty members John Abraham and AnnMarie Thomas, as well as encouragement from a cohort of like-minded scholars passionate about their research.
“My mentors were confident in my success before I was confident in myself,” Hoover said. “I remain deeply grateful for that gift and what the program gave me.”
Her undergraduate engineering experience motivated her to earn a master’s degree and PhD in ecological sciences and engineering as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program recipient at Purdue University, in one of the country’s top engineering programs. Now, she is in a prestigious National Research Council post-doctoral fellowship through the National Academies at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she is investigating ways of maximizing ecosystem services and storm water management benefits from green space and green infrastructure.
Lt. Sean Navin ’10
After earning his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, Navin jumped right into earning his doctorate in pharmacy at University of Minnesota- Duluth. He now serves as a U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps pharmacist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Albuquerque Indian Health Service, which is responsible for providing health services to 27 different tribal groups.
Whether it’s his work in ambulatory care, anticoagulation, smoking cessation, immunizations or any other areas of focus supporting his patients, Navin can trace his professional growth back to the high standards and challenges of the Excel! Scholars program.
“The program challenged me at every level academically: public speaking, research writing, test taking, oral and poster presentations, etc.,” he said. “The thorough and honest feedback in all of these areas helped make me become so much better. … [The program] taught me to bring my ‘A game’ all of the time. I've carried this on throughout my career and try, to the best of my ability, to be as prepared as possible for all my projects and presentations, large and small."