Over the span of two decades, more than 350 first-generation college students, many of them coming from low-income backgrounds, have gotten the push they needed to pursue doctoral degrees through the Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars Program at LSU.

This year, the program celebrates its 20th anniversary at LSU, even as administrators are starting to fear federal budget cuts could eat into their ability to serve students.

The program is named after the country’s second black astronaut, Ronald E. McNair, of South Carolina. He was one of seven crew members killed on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight.

As part of a national response to the tragedy, the U.S. Department of Education, with funding from Congress, established the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage minority, low-income and first-generation college students to pursue doctorate degrees.

Apart from being a highly regarded physicist as an adult, McNair has been celebrated for his academic excellence despite facing racial discrimination while growing up in the pre-civil-rights-era South.

Nayyir Ransome, 20, entered LSU’s McNair Research Scholars Program this school year. During a typical month, the English major participates in workshops with her peers learning the different stages of academic research, including how to plan and organize a thorough, doctorate-level research program.

The McNair program will also help pay for her to do some of that research in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England.

Next year, as a junior, Ransome will pair with a faculty adviser to further help her. The McNair program will be with her the year after that, during the 2014-15 school year, at which point she would be the first one in her family to earn a college degree.

The sophomore from Philadelphia said she plans to earn a PhD on her way to becoming a college professor.

“The McNair offers a lot in research and tutoring and prep work,” Ransome said. “And there is also a social part of it. It is just as socially enriching as it is educational.”

Joseph Givens, director of LSU’s McNair program said it addresses a public shortage of distinguished academic credentials in science and technology.

“We need more teachers and more scientists,” he said. “We’re helping students pursue PhDs. A very small percentage of Americans get PhDs and when you add to that people who come from low-income situations and whose parents were under-educated, that percentage is a lot smaller.”

With federal funding that amounts to a $270,000 annual budget, Givens said LSU is able to maintain 33 students in the program, nurture them from their sophomore year until they graduate and also add between nine and 11 new McNair Scholars every fall.

Givens explains that it’s a very competitive program.

“We are looking for students with a passion and desire. We are an education opportunity program specifically for students going for PhDs. It’s not for everyone,” Givens said. “Earning a PhD is a long, grueling process and it leads only to a limited range of careers. We talk to our students about their ambitions and what they want to do with their lives. We have to use our professional judgment.”

Yoel Gebrai, 20, a sophomore from the Atlanta suburbs, was selected for the program this year. He’s working toward a doctoral degree in petroleum engineering.

Gebrai said the McNair program fits highly-motivated students interested in reaching new academic heights.

“What it does is it makes you a well-rounded, competitive applicant for a PhD program,” Gebrai said.