Angela on Being a McNair Scholar

Angela is currently a senior majoring in Sociology and Social Sciences
(Economics). This past summer, she took on a research project as a McNair Scholar and had the opportunity to present her research at the University of California, Berkeley. This is her interview on her research and experience as a McNair Scholar.

What is the McNair Scholars Program and what was your research about?
The McNair Scholars Program is actually a federal program that exists across the country and its purpose is to provide undergraduate research experience and resources on how to get to grad school to underrepresented students in higher education. So that’s for first generation college students, students of color, any kind of non-traditional student. They do so by basically teaching us how to do research on the undergraduate level but also they give us tips on research in general. They also give us a bunch of presentations on how to get into grad school and what you need for grad school. Pretty much all of us are coming from families that did not necessarily complete an undergraduate degree so graduate schools seem almost foreign to us.

I did my research on the experiences of undocumented, queer-identified immigrant youth and looked particularly at their coming out stories. I looked into when they came out as queer, when they came out as undocumented, difficulties they’ve had coming out as either within the community or with their family and my methodology was interviews so I interviewed them. Then I transcribed the interviews and looked for patterns in their stories.

What were your findings? What was something interesting you found from your research?
In analyzing the data, three major findings arose. The first one was that family tensions before disclosure of their queer identity were really high so all of the respondents feared for familial abandonment. This was the biggest stress for pretty much all of them in terms of them coming out to their families. Most of them were out and most of them were also able to maintain peaceful relationships with their families, even though they weren’t necessarily ideal. So for the most part, their families were tolerant and they were willing to open up to them a little bit.
The second major finding was that queerness emerged as a secondary coming out process so a lot of them came out as undocumented first, got politicized, got empowered in their undocumented identity and then transferred that empowerment into their queer identity. So for most of them, not all of them, queerness was a secondary coming out process.
The third finding was that my respondents viewed their experiences through intersectional lenses so rather than viewing them as totally separate identities, they really look at their experiences through a broader interconnected web of oppression and looked at how the way they were treated as undocumented was similar to the way that they were treated as a queer person. Both are stigmatized identities in our society and so they really viewed them as connected in a broader system rather than as two totally different identities that they just happen to be. This was really helpful when they wanted to connect with other organizations that aren’t necessarily undocuqueer organizations or even necessarily undocumented or queer organizations. They could connect with women’s rights groups because they would use their oppression and they would see it as a way to connect with other people because they understood how oppression was connected and it also, on a more basic level, it helped them to accept themselves and to say, “Yes, I can be queer and undocumented and a person of color.” It was a way for them to understand that they could be all those identities at one time.

Besides from the research, what have you taken away from the experience of being a McNair Scholar? 
One thing that I’ve taken away from the experience was constantly being with first generation students and first generation students of color all in a scholarly environments and I think that a lot of times, unfortunately because we are underrepresented in higher education, it is hard to find spaces where the minorities are the majority. So I think that it was really cool being in those environments where we all felt comfortable to speak our mind because we were not the only queer person in the room or not the only person of color or only first generation college student in the room. It was kind of therapeutic almost because you get to be with all of these other students who don’t come from families who have scholarly dinner discussions and stuff like that. It was cool for us to actually have those discussions and to be in a scholarly environment. Also, just going to UC Berkeley to present. Six of us got to go up UC Berkeley to present our research and it was really empowering to see so many students of color from across the country.

Do you feel that there is enough LGBTQ voices in the McNair Program (or in research programs all together) and if not, how can we encourage LGBTQ people to become more involved with research?
I think that queer people are natural scholars. Our experiences being alienated, learning to hate ourselves, gives us a different perception of the world and we interpret things in a different way that I think is very critical and analytical, which is what research is all about. Research is looking at a problem from a new angle and analyzing what you‘re seeing and I think that queer people are naturally good at that. We grow up being critical of things because we grow up with so much hate directed at us. So anytime there are scholars, there’s going to be queer scholars in there. With McNair, out of the six that went up to UC Berkeley, three of us were queer. In my cohort, I would say that we did have pretty decent queer representation; probably about five or six were queer-identified. Like I said, I think it’s just natural that queer people are smart. People of color are also smart, in my opinion.
I should say this, there are not a lot of people who are doing research on queer issues, and I think that is still kind of stigmatized. I think there is a lot of pressure on queer people not to do research on stuff that is queer-related because they might feel selfish, or feel like their problems s shouldn’t necessarily merit a bunch of research. They are more likely to do research based on ethnicity or race rather than queerness, which is kind of a problem.

I think a big thing is to encourage queer students to go to graduate school. A big part of McNair is graduate school so if students have the desire to go to graduate school then there are seminars on how to get into graduate school. They’ll learn that the best thing you can do is research, and have research experience on the undergraduate level.

Angela is involved with Youths Exploring Passion (Y.E.P.) and the Queer and Ally Student Assembly. She has recently started the Queer Youth Empowerment Project that works with local gay-straight alliances within Los Angeles County.

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