Wanting to test his personal assumptions and experience, Maxwell Ukegbu, an economics major, applied to the UVM McNair Scholars Program in 2008. He has since produced unique research on whether Nigerian immigrants are better off after coming to the U.S. — his own family having relocated from Nigeria to the Bronx when Ukegbu was five.
Ukegbu is one of 10 students in the fifth cohort of the McNair Scholars Program, which seeks to increase the number of first generation, limited income and underrepresented minority students who earn doctorate degrees.
Like many fledgling researchers, Ukegbu faced a difficult research question right from the start: how do you measure a group's well-being? With the help of his McNair mentor Rhonda Sharpe, assistant professor of economics, he identified some specific economic and social attributes of Nigerian immigrants using cohort analysis between 1980 and 2000.
"I had my own opinions heading into the project, but after seeing the research results, I saw that some of my assumptions weren't true," says Ukegbu, who found that 12 percent of immigrants ages 17–24 had bachelor's degrees in 1980. Ten years later, 58 percent of that same cohort, now ages 25–34, had obtained bachelor's degrees, and the number increased again to 62 percent by 2000.
"Nigerian immigrants are using their lust and passion for educational attainment to make things more comfortable for them in the United States," writes Ukegbu
Ukegbu says his summer of research was one of the most challenging and productive of his life. He even managed to find the time to record a rap CD about growing up in the Bronx. Though conducting research and recording a CD are polar experiences, both helped Ukegbu to tell a story that will help others.
"He needs meaning attached to whatever he's doing," says Sharpe, "so with research the numbers have to mean something. Numbers are all well and fine, but what do they mean? That's what drives him.