A Message from the Excel! Research Scholars Program Director

About four years ago, when I would begin the training of a new cohort of scholars, I would start by challenging students to stop answering the question, “what do you want to major in”? Instead, I would tell the students to redirect that question and respond to it by saying, “this is the change that I want to make in America.”

Since we began “Journey for Justice: A Study of the American Civil Rights Movement” in 2011, I realized that Excel! is more than a program that helps underserved and underrepresented student populations. Excel! is a program that is cultivating scholarly leaders who, as Flonzie Brown Wright (a foot soldier in Canton, MS) once told us, are being handed the torch that is being passed from her generation to the students of today—whether they like it or not. She candidly stated that there are expectations for today’s young people and they can ill afford to approach college thinking only about themselves. Rather they should focus on where America will be in the future for the generations to come.

Today, students are continuing to lay the groundwork for tomorrow’s people, including themselves. This is a heavy weight to put on the shoulders of a population of students who are still working to get their arms around what it means and takes to become a lawyer, psychologist, sociologist, teacher, scientist, historian, doctor, writer, and the list goes on. Students in colleges nationwide are trained today to think “go to college and in four years get a job.” But, is it a job that they seek or an opportunity to get paid to contribute to America for the next 40 plus years of their lives in a way that will be passionately fulfilling to them and the lives of others? Do students want to be ordinary or extraordinary? To be extraordinary is one goal or aspiration that cannot be obtained through a Google search. This challenge is deep and requires a commitment that cannot be obtained fast, quick and in a hurry like Mac ‘n Cheese in a microwave.

In the Excel! Research Scholars Program the goal is to create leaders like scholar Jenny Xiong, ‘11. I remember vividly when Jenny, as an undergraduate student, was telling me that she wanted to help older Hmong people who have migrated to the United States understand the value and benefits of Western medicine over medicine from back home and how it can prolong their lives. In 2015 Jenny Xiong became Dr. Xiong, earning her Pharm.D. degree from the University of Minnesota. She is now serving as a leader in her community.

Sean Navin, ’10, is another scholar who aspired to be a pharmacist as well. But, being a pharmacist that simply clocked into work and clocked out at the end of the day was not enough for him. In 2013, two years before he graduated from the University of Minnesota—Duluth with his Pharm.D. degree, Sean began making trips to Mexico where he organized the Minnesota Pharmacy Student Alliance (MPSA). This was an annual service project, entitled the Puebla Service Project, where pharmacy students traveled throughout Mexico to provide free healthcare screenings to remote communities.

Robin Willenbring ’12—a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN—and Amy Westmoreland ’10—a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor—are both expected to graduate this year. Each of these women reached back and became leaders to current scholars in the Excel! program by helping them to secure amazing research opportunities critical for their success as they begin the application process for graduate school.

What I love most about the Excel! Research Scholars Program is that there is a common thread among us, myself included. We are not working to secure jobs. We are working to be leaders and we want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Excel! is not about what we do for a living but rather the contributions we want to make to help the world move forward.

Mahatma Ghandhi, once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We often hear this statement when we go on our study tours down South to study the Civil Rights Movement. We know that Dr. Martin Luther King and others such as Rev. James Lawson were inspired by Ghandhi and the idea of creating a nonviolent movement to impact change in America. Through successful hard work, contributions and dedication put forth by organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its nonviolent trainings, Freedom Summer and many other organizations during the Civil Rights Movement, America saw change. Excel! Scholars also want to see change. This is what they are working towards in addition to earning advanced degrees.

I love my job because I am seeing the change in young people with whom I have had the pleasure of training. Students in this program go on to be admitted and funded for graduate school because they work hard and not because they can “check a box.” They are qualified, dedicated, and committed.

Excel! Scholars are passionate people. We are not just scholars we are leaders for change!

-- Cynthia J. Fraction, Director, Excel! Research Scholars Program