Aug. 28, 2018
By Chris Woodley, firstname.lastname@example.org
Higher education often opens doors and provides opportunities for students who thought were unattainable. One Bachelor of Social Work student recently completed a summer research project as part of a program to help prepare undergraduates for graduate school and beyond.
Youstina Rezkalla was one of 22 undergraduates selected this past spring for the Ronald E. McNair Program. The post-baccalaureate achievement program helps eligible undergraduate students prepare for graduate education through research and other scholarly activities. Participants are first-generation or low-income students from underrepresented groups in graduate education.
Rezkalla was born in Alexandria, Egypt and immigrated to the United States with her family prior to her first birthday. After living in Jersey City, N.J., her family settled in Greenville, S.C. when she was in fifth grade. Rezkalla did not learn about the McNair Program until this past February, even though the application deadline was in January. But Sharon Lee-White, the Ronald E. McNair Program Coordinator, extended the deadline to increase the number of participants.
“Dr. (Daniel) Freedman sent an email about the program, but I thought, ‘There’s no way I could do research,’” said Rezkalla. “Then someone talked about the program in one of my classes and encouraged us to apply. I was accepted and became part of the largest class of scholars in the program’s history. It’s crazy to think about it now, but I went from ignoring the program to thinking, ‘Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?’”
Rezkalla was also impressed by the support she received during the application process.
“Dr. White made it clear that she only accepts students where she sees potential,” said Rezkalla. “Even though there were risk factors and odds against me, she was encouraging and gave me hope to know that she was on my side.”
After an orientation during the spring semester, the six-week summer residency portion lasted from May 20 to July 3. During this time, Rezkalla worked on her research project, Why the school to prison pipeline in South Carolina targets marginalized groups and the long-term effects of it. The culmination of the summer program was presenting her research at the 24th Annual SAEOPP McNair Research Conference in Atlanta.
“My original topic was incarcerations versus rehabilitations and how they affect juvenile delinquents,” said Rezkalla. “But I realized there was no way to talk about juvenile delinquents without the bigger picture. Two weeks before my presentation, I changed the topic to be more focused on the effects of systematic oppression, why it’s prominent in South Carolina and how minorities are targeted in higher numbers at schools than their peers. A child suspended outside of school does not receive a proper education and fails to graduate. They make less money without a high school diploma and may look for money illegally and are sent to prison. Thus, it becomes a continuous cycle of systematic oppression.”
Rezkalla’s research included interviews with affected youth, state representatives and individuals from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
“One thing I found was that several incarcerated youths had a lower cognitive development than those not affected,” said Rezkalla. “If these youth are targeted at a young age and systematically oppressed, it hurts them long-term because they’re unable to earn as much of their peers, which puts them in a cycle of poverty.”
Rezkalla will continue in the program by attending a McNair Scholars Capstone class this fall, which helps students navigate through the graduate school application process. She plans to simultaneously apply to social work graduate schools and law schools and later earn her Ph.D.
“The McNair program gave me new options because I didn’t think I was Ph.D. material,” said Rezkalla. “But it’s an attainable goal because I now have a clear understanding of all the university’s resources. For example, I wasn’t aware that I’m eligible to receive three types of Graduation with Leadership Distinctions, which only one person has ever achieved at USC. I made a goal for myself to become the second person. The program showed me different paths and gave me a new perspective.”
Rezkalla has also forged new friendships with a group she now considers family.
“I gained 21 new brothers and sisters from this experience,” said Rezkalla. “It’s something I will forever be grateful for because we all come from different backgrounds, walks of life and diversities. When you’re in a class with the same 21 people for six straight weeks, you learn their backstories and struggles and realize you’re not the only one. Anything is attainable with a solid support system.”