For Jocelyn Ortiz, the McNair summer research program opens up opportunities

Leaving behind her home in Chicago for wide-open spaces and opportunities in Southern Illinois, Jocelyn Ortiz found herself quickly immersed in research at SIU Carbondale.

“My goal right when I got down here was to look for ways to get involved,” said Ortiz, a senior in psychology who recently earned a McNair Scholar cash prize for summer research dedicated to juvenile delinquency. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s pretty quiet sometimes, and that took some time to getting used to. But I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Ortiz was attending college in her hometown before arriving in Southern Illinois due to a family move before her junior year. While working in the family’s Mexican restaurant, Ortiz, who lives in Willisville, met several local teachers, which resulted in her working as a bilingual aide at an elementary school assisting minority families in the school district.

Ortiz said those experiences deepened her desire to seek more opportunities to learn and grow while at SIU. While taking a class taught last spring by Daryl Kroner, a professor in criminology and criminal justice, Ortiz noticed a flyer promoting the McNair Scholars program.

17th annual summer research symposium

Ortiz won a $150 prize for her paper and accompanying video that focused on juvenile offenders. “Unraveling the Link Between Protective Factors and Juvenile Delinquency,” was one of 11 student presentations in late July.

Ortiz’ work examined data from Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island country in the Caribbean. She looked at risk factors and protective factors and their correlation to youth gang involvement for 2,552 students in the country between the ages of 13-19.

The federally funded scholars program is named for the late Ronald E. McNair, a physicist and astronaut who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, the program’s goal is preparing undergraduate students for graduate school through research and scholarly activities. 

Since receiving its first McNair grant in 2003, SIU has provided opportunities to more than 200 students. The program links students to faculty members who provide intensive hands-on, mentored research experiences for eight weeks during the Summer Research Institute.

Launching point for career

Tamara Kang, an assistant professor in SIU’s School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, credits the McNair program as a launching point for her career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from SIU in 2011.

“The McNair Scholar Program’s preparation was likely the reason I was able to be admitted to a doctoral program where I received a tuition waiver and a teaching assistantship to provide me employment as I progressed through graduate school,” Kang said. “The preparation for the GRE, and the experience I received provided me exposure to conducting my own research, which allowed me to be more competitive in my graduate applications.”

Ability to perform high-level research

Kroner has worked with McNair students in the past. Students receive research experience, so if they are thinking about graduate school, they have a better idea of what’s involved, he said.

“Jocelyn has the chops to do research at a high level,” Kroner said. “Her willingness to put things together was a real strength of hers. She’s fun to be around, too, and is curious. That’s why I wanted to try and get her sucked into our vortex.”

Fascinated with human behavior

Ortiz has been fascinated by human behavior since taking a psychology course in high school and is also shaped by her own background.

“I come from a working-class family with parents who came new to this country and have little to no education,” Ortiz said. “Seeing my parents struggle has really driven me to push myself and test my limits. This has led me to take on many opportunities, even when they may seem challenging.”

She had “no idea” that she would become so enthralled with accompanying data. Her paper is being enhanced with more integrated data and analysis, and her research is being turned into an independent study course this semester. Kroner hired Ortiz as a paid researcher for some of his projects.

Ortiz looks back on the move to Southern Illinois as an opportunity “to focus on my education.”

“Chicago is so beautiful. But it can also be violent, and there are a lot of potential distractions,” she said. “I personally grew up in a poor and violent community and saw what can happen. But I also want to go back, too. Hopefully help people change the cycles and mindsets that cause these problems.”

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