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UC Berkeley students to be among 100 first-generation undergraduates presenting research as McNair Scholars
31 July 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Tam Bui's interest in her own culture and in regional economy spurred the University of California, Berkeley, student to do a detailed study of the impact of Vietnamese immigrants on Silicon Valley.

Along with some 100 other McNair Scholars - first-generation undergraduates from groups underrepresented in graduate education - from throughout the West, Bui will present her research findings Aug. 10-12 at UC Berkeley at the 2001 California McNair Scholars Symposium.

Bui's fellow scholars will present work on topics including non-custodial African American fatherhood, Maya perceptions on ancestral remains, power in architecture, college student body image, gansta rap vernaculars, and middle class Latinos and academic achievement.

Part of a federally-funded program at 156 universities in 42 states and Puerto Rico, the UC Berkeley McNair Scholars Program is named after the late Ronald E. McNair, an astronaut and laser physicist. He served on the 1984 flight of the Challenger space shuttle and died in the craft's explosion in 1986.

As they're groomed to become the PhD candidates of tomorrow, McNair Scholars are aided by $2,500 research stipends that allow them to study rather than work in the summer and helped by their mentors - graduate student instructors and professors.

Bui, 20, said it was an article written by UC Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian about the impact in Silicon Valley of Indian and Chinese immigrants that inspired her research.

"I felt strongly that a similar study needed to be done on the Vietnamese community because they are the third largest foreign-born population in Silicon Valley's high technology industries (behind the Chinese and Indian)," said Bui, the oldest of five children and the daughter of parents who settled in Sacramento after fleeing Vietnam in 1975.

"In general, there has not been much attention by academics about Vietnamese immigrants, in particular highly skilled and educated Vietnamese immigrants," she said. Bui's faculty mentor turned out to be Saxenian.

At UC Berkeley, other McNair mentors include Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Leon Litwack, former poet laureate and professor of English Robert Hass, and Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology and vice provost for undergraduate education.

Former McNair Scholar and native San Franciscan Donnie Gayfield, 48, will soon graduate from UC Berkeley and begin preparing for graduate school. The mentoring he received in the McNair program made all the difference, said Gayfield, who came to UC Berkeley in 1999 as a re-entry student.

His symposium presentation traced the development of homophobia in the black community from pre-colonial practices of homosexuality within certain African tribes to the Black Panther movement.

An advanced graduate student helped Gayfield develop his writing and critical analysis skills. "As a result of working with her," he said, "I was much more secure with doing my senior honors thesis, and now I feel much more confident about entering graduate school."

Shanesha Renée Frances Brooks, 20, has her sights set on a PhD in literature and becoming a novelist. The junior honors student with a double major in English and interdisciplinary studies is a McNair Scholar, California Alumni Scholar, and editor-in-chief of Onyx Express, the black student newspaper.

Brooks chose five jazz and blues poems written by Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance era for her McNair research. She explored the ways Hughes used music as motifs for representing duality and double-consciousness, or self-appraisal via external, often hostile, means of measurement.

"As a first-generation, low-income college student, I feel that I am truly blessed to be studying at the No. 1 public university in the nation, and I am ecstatic to be an encouragement to my five younger brothers," the Los Angeles native said.

Sophal Ear picked UC Berkeley for his undergraduate work and now is in a PhD program here. A McNair Scholar from 1994-95, Ear's family fled Cambodia for Vietnam in 1976, when he was a toddler. They relocated to France two years later and to the United States in 1985. Ear said the McNair program enabled him to revisit his economics honors thesis, a historical perspective of Cambodia's economic development from 1953-1970.

Then, in "a dream realized," said Ear, he earned his master's degree in public affairs from Princeton University. "McNair gave me all the tools, from GRE preparation to small, but meaningful, things like application fee waivers," he added.

Ear worked for three years as a consultant for the World Bank and today is a PhD student and Chancellor's Opportunity Predoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, working on the political economy of international organizations and good governance.

The McNair Scholars at UC Berkeley are a visible example of both the importance that UC Berkeley places on undergraduate education and the high quality of the undergraduates who are attracted to the campus, said Harold Campbell, director of academic achievement programs at UC Berkeley.

"I am certain that Dr. McNair would be very proud to have his name associated with the outstanding quality of the research produced nationally by the past and current McNair scholars," Campbell said.

Said Brooks, one of this year's scholars, "My dream is that one day every individual will come to a sense of self, and rise above circumstances and strive until their full potential is realized."