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For Young Scholars, a Taste of the Academic Life at Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellows Conference

Pursuing an academic career could mean, among other things, analyzing surveys and interviews of immigrant communities, finding innovative approaches to once-insoluble mathematical equations, or using a literary text to illuminate the role of skin color in African-American ideals of beauty. 

Whatever the discipline, one experience nearly all academics share is that of facing a room full of relative strangers and presenting research findings.

Undergraduates from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore, Princeton, Cornell, and Penn got a taste of the anxiety and the exhilaration of sharing their work with colleagues last Saturday at a conference of Mid-Atlantic Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation characterizes the MMUF program as "the centerpiece of the Foundation's initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning." The program offers support to "minority students, and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue Ph.D.s in core fields in the arts and sciences." 

Bryn Mawr was one of the original eight institutions the Mellon Foundation chose as partners at the program's inception in 1988, noted Bryn Mawr Professor of Spanish María Cristina Quintero as she opened the conference. The program has since expanded to 73 colleges and universities, including 39 historically black institutions.

More than 200 Mellon Mays Fellows have earned Ph.D.s and are teaching around the country and another 150 have reached ABD status and are expected to earn their degrees within two years, the Mellon Foundation's Amy Obonaga reported in a brief congratulatory address on behalf of the foundation.

At Bryn Mawr, the program is administered by Quintero and Dean of the Undergraduate College Karen Tidmarsh. A cohort of five fellows is selected from the sophomore class each year. Throughout their junior and senior years, the fellowship offers them research stipends and a series of programs designed to help students understand the academic environment and culture and to develop intellectual and social skills that are important to academic success. Those who enter Ph.D. programs within three years of graduation are eligible for partial repayment of undergraduate student loans.

"The foundation has identified areas where we need more diversity in the professoriate," Quintero explains. "Many of our brightest students of color come to college with the expectation of going into law, business, or medicine. This program helps us introduce them to career possibilities they might not have considered, and the academy overall benefits from a broader range of perspectives."

"The heart of the program is mentoring," says Quintero. Each fellow is assigned a mentor in her own discipline; mentors offer advice on the fellows' research projects as well as insight into the challenges and rewards of an academic career. The program continues to support the fellows after they begin postgraduate work.

The conference on Saturday drew a crowd of about 75 people, including Mellon Mays Fellows, program coordinators, and faculty mentors from the six MMUF partner schools in the Mid-Atlantic region, and various other community members.

"Just about every seat in Dalton 300 was taken," said Vanessa Christman of the Office of Intercultural Affairs, who coordinated the event. "I was especially pleased by the number of people not affiliated with the program who attended simply out of interest or to support friends who were presenting."

Bryn Mawr students who presented were Sheena Reed '08, who spoke on the effect of "pigmentocracy" on African-American women in literature; Tiffany Shumate '08, who outlined a proposal for neo-Afrocentrism in education; Catherine Farman '08, who examined the evolution of Chicana feminism with a comparison of two works of art produced 20 years apart; and Sarah Khasawinah '09, whose presentation was  titled "Using Elements from the Imaginary to Understand the Real."

Khasawinah, a math major who charmed listeners with her evident delight in the mathematical research she tried valiantly to explain to the humanities scholars who formed a majority of the audience, says, "I enjoyed proving to an audience of mostly self-proclaimed mathematically disinclined intellectuals that math is fun! I also believe, and hopefully conveyed, that the mathematical realm provides many ideas and techniques that should be applied in our global search for social justice."

"I was truly impressed by the intellectual reach of some of the talks and by the way the students communicated the sheer pleasure of their research," Quintero said. "Our students made me proud."

Lively question-and answer sessions followed each presentation as fellow students and faculty members teased out implications of the students' research and suggested additional readings and other avenues they might investigate.

Before lunch, Tidmarsh introduced keynote speaker Theodore M. Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Shaw was lead counsel for African-American and Latino student-intervenors in the University of Michigan undergraduate affirmative action admissions case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that increasing the diversity of the university's undergraduate student body was a compelling state interest that justified Michigan's consideration of race in the admissions process, and Shaw offered an overview of the history of affirmative-action litigation and the continuing legal challenges affirmative-action programs face.

One of the most popular items on Saturday's  program was a panel of five Tri-College alumni of the program who are either in or have graduated from Ph.D. programs. The panelists offered candid responses to students' questions on a range of topics.

"It was inspiring to our students to see what their predecessors have accomplished," said Quintero.

Each of the five panelists acknowledged the MMUF's program's critical assistance in navigating a career path some had not even recognized as a possibility.

"The idea that somebody would pay me to read books I want to read and research things I want to know about had never even occurred to me," said Maria McMath, a Swarthmore graduate who recently completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at Princeton University and is currently a visiting professor at Haverford.

Bryn Mawr graduate Alicia Walker '94, who is an art historian at Washington University in St. Louis, noted a particular dearth of racial and ethnic diversity among medievalists.

"When I began graduate study, there was very little discussion of the questions of power and privilege that were being explored in other areas and that tend to interest scholars of color," she says. "By bringing that perspective to the study of Byzantine art, I feel that I've been able to make a real contribution to my field."

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Posted 2/21/2008 by Claudia Ginanni