Maricopa County AZ November 5, 2023
For seven years, Ronald McNair, now 63, worked two different jobs — one on weekdays, the other on weekends — and squeezed in time to study for online classes at Keiser University.
In early September, on a sunny day in Pembroke Pines, Florida, McNair’s seven-year educational journey — a second bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and finally a doctorate — finally came to an end.
Ronald McNair, security officer and Home Depot employee, became Ronald McNair, Ph.D.
He’s also a court security supervisor in Maricopa County Arizona.
His doctorate is in criminal justice and criminology, and McNair has too many goals to achieve with his new credential to think about retirement anytime soon.
When McNair walked the stage to receive his degree on Sept. 8, it looked as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders, said his daughter Latasha McNair.
“No one could calm him down before he got on that stage,” she said. But once he was up there, she said, “he totally was relaxed and just excited.”
McNair “hated school with a passion” for most of his life, he said.
While growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, learning wasn’t enjoyable, he said, because his schools had limited resources. They were some of the first in the South to become desegregated, he said.
After he enlisted in the Army, McNair took the “practical” approach and got a bachelor’s degree in communications to move up in rank. But McNair was dispirited by the stigma he said he felt as one of a handful of Black students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The bachelor’s degree, though, qualified McNair to become a captain. As he spent more time in the military, McNair said, he realized that education provides not just status, but also the opportunity to “learn the beauty of certain things.”
“Back then, I was doing a degree because I wanted to get a promotion in the military,” McNair said. “But then when I started my master’s and Ph.D. program, it was something I wanted to do for me.”
McNair’s strongest aspiration is to use the lessons from his criminal justice education and his life experience to provide guidance to young people who have limited opportunities.
“The biggest thing is that I want to be an inspiration to younger people, especially young, African American people to let them know that if I can do it, you can,” McNair said.
McNair said obtaining his doctorate required years of being willing to challenge himself, and he worked non-stop.
In addition to working weekends in the flooring department at Home Depot, McNair has dedicated hours to protecting Maricopa County’s Northeast Regional Court Center as a judicial branch security sergeant.
“Ron routinely coordinates with Phoenix Police officers and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies to ensure that not only judicial officers, court staff and stakeholders are safe, but all patrons entering the facility,” said Sean Gibbs, the director of security at the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County. “We’re all proud of Dr. Ronald McNair’s accomplishments.”
In addition to managing two jobs while studying, McNair needed to overcome his own educational hurdles. McNair said he has struggled with grammar and spelling throughout his life. He finished his second undergraduate program with a 2.6 GPA, causing him to be on academic probation for a time while pursuing his master’s.
On Sept. 8, McNair graduated from Keiser University’s Online Division with honors, becoming the first person to receive a criminology doctorate from the university.
Keiser University Chancellor Arthur Keiser said the school is “incredibly proud of Dr. McNair for his achievement and never giving up on his educational goals.”
Angela Clarke, a long-time friend of McNair’s who is pursuing a criminology doctorate, said she does not think McNair has fully processed the significance of his accomplishment.
“I got to witness him fulfilling a dream, a dream that he didn’t think that he could do at first,” Clarke said. “That is a great feeling.”
Before working for a Maricopa County court, McNair was a prison corrections officer. That’s how he and Clarke met, working together at a CoreCivic detention center. She was working as a case manager, and he was a prison guard.
Clarke said being employed in the criminal justice system inspired them both to pursue education related to the field.
“Working in a prison, we see a lot of things that should not be,” Clarke said. “The only way that we’re going to change those things is through educating ourselves and then educating others around us.”
McNair said he saw young men in prison who reminded him of his former self: men trying to navigate tough circumstances with no mentor to look to for guidance. McNair said he wants to be a professor or mentor to help young people of color who are facing discrimination and other life challenges.
“Maybe I can catch some people before they get to that point and let them know that ‘Yes, you’re gonna have challenges, you’re gonna have obstacles in your life,'” McNair said. “‘But you’re going to have to look at those challenges and those obstacles and make something positive instead of something negative out of that.'”
From working in the state’s prison and court systems, McNair developed an interest in the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, he said.
McNair’s dissertation focused on factors contributing to police shootings. As a Black man seeing coverage of the killings of George Floyd and other Black men by police officers, the dissertation topic felt timely and personal, he said.
“We have got to expose both sides,” McNair said, arguing that people need to be open to understanding the perspectives of law enforcement and the victims of police abuse.
Clarke said she encouraged McNair to pursue more education so he had the credentials to make his dreams a reality. They have discussed founding a mentoring program that would offer scholarships and other resources to young people of color.
“With him being the backbone of it all, he’s not going to let us stop,” Clarke said about their dream project. “That’s one thing I can say about him. If we start something, we’re going to finish it because he won’t allow us to quit.”
Home Depot employee Matt Valenzuela, 21, said his mentorship from McNair grew from the friendship they formed while working together in the flooring department.
McNair left his position at Home Depot a few weeks before graduating. But after months of engaging in deep conversations with McNair, Valenzuela will always consider McNair his “work grandpa,” the young man said.
“He’s definitely one of those guys you meet once in a lifetime,” Valenzuela said. “You hardly meet someone that’s willing to actually help you and to actually give a damn about you.”