Juan Zalapa, a child of Texas and Guadalajara, now studies the genetics of cranberries at UW-Madison. The horticulture professor credits a federally funded grant program he was admitted to as an undergrad at Texas Tech University for setting him on his unlikely journey north.
"I had no concept of more education beyond a bachelor's degree," he said of his mindset before entering the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program, designed to smooth the path to graduate school in the sciences for minority and low-income students. "It really changed my perspective."
The same program, named for a black astronaut and physicist who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, has helped more than 1,370 undergraduates throughout the University of Wisconsin System over the past two decades — but it could end or be significantly reduced in the coming school year.
The federal Department of Education announced a cut of $10 million nationally during the spring, arguing success stories like Zalapa's — where poor and minority undergraduates get Ph.D.s and teach at universities, adding diversity to the professorial ranks — have not happened enough since the program started in the late 1980s. The money could be better used to encourage high school students to study math and science, the federal agency argues.