Before sophomore Dustyn Montgomery spoke on July 27 at the Excel! Research Scholars program symposium, he was worried he would make a mistake. He had spent all week practicing his presentation on his summer’s worth of research on school resource officers, and every run-through came with one mishap.

But when he stood in front of the audience of faculty, family and friends, it was all there, flawlessly. For 15 minutes he spoke passionately about his research, then answered questions as the audience indicated their interest in his work.

“It’s been reassuring knowing I have the opportunity and I’m capable of doing these kinds of things,” said Montgomery, a first-generation college student who graduated from nearby Tartan High School. “It’s really opened my eyes to the different opportunities I have in my time here at St. Thomas.”

Montgomery is one of seven St. Thomas students in his cohort within the Excel! program, a post-baccalaureate achievement program that helps undergraduate students to complete their degree, and be prepared to apply to, be competitive for and excel in graduate school. (The program started at St. Thomas in 2012 as a continuation of the McNair Scholars program, which began in 2007.) Each year’s group of students create their own Living Learning Community, spend a summer doing funded research with a faculty mentor, and use their presentation and area of research to launch their preparation for graduate school and beyond.

“The object of the game is to build your academic portfolio. … What kind of things tell people that you’re worthy of being funded? What do you bring to the table? Why would they admit you and fund you?” said Cynthia Fraction, the program’s director.

The evidence of Excel!’s effectiveness at St. Thomas is evident on two walls on the third floor of Aquinas Hall. One is inside Fraction’s office, her “wall of love,” letters from students, faculty and staff articulating the value of their time in the program. The other is outside Fraction’s office, where dozens of smiling faces of past students represent those who have gone on to graduate and law degrees, doctorates, many of them on full scholarships to the likes of Yale and Brown universities.

“This experience was pretty influential to developing me into seeing graduate school as real option for my future,” said Clemente Dabney ’10, who completed his master’s in plant breeding and molecular genetics and is now working toward a doctorate in plant biological sciences at the University of Minnesota. “We had faculty mentors similar to grad school; completed research projects; interacted with other students who went off to become doctors and lawyers; learned about the GRE and the process to get into graduate school; learned and were tutored on subjects in GRE. … The program was influential in my current success.”

“All of these kids have a story,” Fraction said as she pointed out one after another, detailing many of the obstacles they faced and overcame in their personal and academic journeys. “What’s exciting for me is that they’re learning more than just research. They’re taking an understanding that what I’m doing in the research, learning about graduate school, presenting, it all comes together.”

A true Excel! community

Beyond serving as inspiration for current and future Excel! students, alumni of Excel! have made a point over the years to support current Tommies. Whether it’s returning to campus, acting as mentors or helping make connections for graduate school and beyond, “they come back around and help others like themselves,” Fraction said.

A large part of that continued cohesion is the true element of family created by the program’s rigorous nature, its Living Learning Community and its hallmark trip every spring, “We March for Justice,” a study tour of the American civil rights movement. Students journey throughout Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, meeting “foot soldiers of the movement,” Fraction said, and visiting and learning about places like the Lorraine Motel of Martin Luther King’s assassination; the Edmund Pettus Bridge of the Bloody Sunday march; the Madison County Courthouse; Ole Miss’ civil rights and slave archives; the 16th Street Baptist Church; and the bus stop where Rosa Parks caught her bus the day she changed the face of segregated transportation.

“We teach the stories behind the stories. This is what fuels their passion,” Fraction said. “It puts things in perspective, even what I’m dealing with here on campus. That fuels the passion for what they’re doing.”

The trip started in 2012 as an extension of Fraction’s own research interests.

“I wanted to see how it could infuse passion for learning in populations that are disadvantaged. People in the movement were disadvantaged … and students began to learn what other people were going through, similar to what they’re going through, in the classroom, socially, academically,” Fraction said.

Students, faculty and staff have taken part in the trip, including Teron Buford, associate director of admissions for Dougherty Family College.

“Not only did I get a chance to visit many of the cities and sites that have helped our nation to where it is today, I was also afforded that opportunity to interact with living monuments of history – many of the agitators, demonstrators allies and witnesses of the civil rights movement that are still alive today,” Buford wrote after the 2015 trip. “Such moments affirmed to me that, while the movement may have seemed to take place a lifetime ago, we are not as far-removed from atrocities such as slavery, oppression, discrimination and segregation as we’d like to think.”

For current students like Montgomery who are diving into research and starting their academic paths, the combination of their passions and finding a voice for the voiceless is a powerful one.

“My biggest hope is to just shine a light on voices that aren’t heard within that conversation,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery found his way to the program in part because of the extensive volunteering work he started as a high school student, which has centered around his collecting thousands of books to donate to Hennepin County Medical Center and, more recently, to hurricane victims. As part of a group called Uprising his junior year of high school he was the lone white student, helping expose him to perspectives other than his own and have spurred his desire to do as much good as he can. As he decided to enroll and since, Excel! has helped him start doing exactly that.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say the support [of Fraction, his faculty mentor, Dr. Tanya Gladney, and fellow students] is motivating. You know there are people fighting for you and rooting for you. Even in times where the research is tough, you know there are people that are supporting you and that good things will come out of it,” Montgomery said. “Deep down they care not only about your research, but about you as a person and what you care about, which I think is super important. People get wrapped up in some things and it’s more about what they’re doing than who they are as a person; with the Excel! program they deeply care about you as an individual alongside your research.”

To learn more about the Excel! program, the research that has been done through it and the success of its alumni, check out these Newsroom stories:

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