Challenger astronaut serves as inspiration for CWU students - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Challenger astronaut serves as inspiration for CWU students

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ELLENSBURG, WA - More than 31 years after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the influence of an astronaut aboard that ill-fated mission is still being felt today.

His life is the inspiration for a scholarship program that helps students across the country, including Central Washington University students.

"He was a first generation scholar and he went on to MIT to get a PhD in Physics," said Lucinda Carnell, the program's director. "He was a large advocate for education and for students obtaining PhD programs."

Now, Ronald McNair's legacy lives on through the Department of Education's McNair Scholar's Program. It's been preparing students at CWU to pursue their PhD's since 1991.

"We teach the students how to actually think like academic scholars," Carnell said. "We have a curriculum in which we teach them the philosophy and the idea behind research."

Most McNair scholars come from low-income families, and are people of color historically underrepresented in graduate programs. Yecenia Ramirez is double majoring in psychology and Spanish. She's aspiring to be a college professor.

"It's been hard just because my parents never went to college," Ramirez said. "My brother had some college experience but never continued to pursue it. It's hard but I like it because I'm setting an example for my younger sisters."

Bryan Plankenhorn is also a double major, but that's where the similarities between he and Ramirez end. He's studying biology and general chemistry, and wants to get a PhD in aquatic ecology to reverse or minimize the affects of water quality problems in his tribe.

"We've been using these waters for so long," Plankenhorn said, "and having to go outside of our boundaries to keep being able to provide for our families, it hurt to see."

Plankenhorn and Ramirez were born years after Ronald McNair died in the Challenger explosion, but they embody his spirit and his appreciation for education.

McNair scholars are in 185 institutions across the country. At CWU, more than 700 students have been a part of the program since it started 26 years ago. It may not sound like a lot, but consider: only .5 percent of the nation gets their PhD.