The Power of the Pipeline
With its long tradition of preparing students for academic careers, BMC was a natural for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, which aims to diversify the professoriate. Scores of Mellon Mays fellows have graduated from the College and gone on to earn advanced degrees and pursue distinguished academic and professional careers. Bryn Mawr has often been at the forefront of movements toward equality in higher education. Time and again, that impetus comes from students who challenge the institution they love to love them back even more fiercely. The Bulletin invited three fellows—two alumnae and a current student—to share their Mellon Mays experiences.
In response to Black student demands for racial justice on campus in the late ’60s, Bryn Mawr hired its first Black professor, Dr. Robert Washington (sociology), in 1970. It is not strange at all that asking to be reflected in the professoriate—and in the curriculum—was central to minority student demands. In fact, research consistently shows that having co-ethnic professors has positive implications for minority students’ retention, self-confidence, academic performance, and graduation. The same is true for women. But women and people of color—especially women of color—are severely underrepresented among the ranks of the American professoriate.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation runs a constellation of initiatives to diversify the professoriate. Its centerpiece, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program, was founded in 1988 with eight member institutions (including Bryn Mawr) and has since recruited 40 more colleges and universities in the United States and South Africa. As of 2017, the program has selected and trained more than 5,000 fellows, more than 700 of whom have earned their doctorates and more than 100 of whom are now tenured faculty members at colleges and universities all over the world.
Each year, five rising juniors interested in pursuing a career in academia are selected as fellows and then embark on a research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Fellows earn a monthly research stipend during the academic year and propose budgets for larger summer stipends to fund research, travel, and unpaid internships. Coordinators meet with fellows weekly, holding workshops on topics such as writing graduate school personal statements, working through research roadblocks, and self-care.
Mellon’s coaching and financial assistance continue after commencement with opportunities to network and share research, secure research and travel grants, and attend dissertation proposal and manuscript writing retreats. Even after alumni earn their doctoral degrees, MMUF offers programs to prepare them for the job market and the development of their tenure dossier.
Three of Bryn Mawr’s own Mellon Mays fellows — two alumnae and one current fellow — gathered in Wyndham’s Blue Room on a recent Saturday to talk about experiences with the program.
Now a major gift officer for Swarthmore College, Erica Seaborne ’09, an English major, originally planned to be an English professor, but after graduation she worked in fundraising for Medical Students for Choice and found her passion in philanthropy. In that time, she earned her M.A. in public administration with a focus on nonprofit leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Gissell Montoya ’17, a senior majoring in International Studies and minoring in Health Studies, hopes to work in research this year while applying to sociology Ph.D. programs. And I am Joanna Pinto-Coelho ’09, a sociology major and political science minor who earned my M.S. in social policy and Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gissell Montoya: How many years did it [the Ph.D.] take you?
Joanna Pinto-Coelho: So I went straight through.
JPC: And I think it was because I knew, at least at the time, that that was what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t think of anything else I would do in the meantime. I was like “Let’s just go!” I graduated in 2009. So I guess that’s what — seven and a half years?
GM: How long did —
JPC: How long did it feel Like?! Fifty years.
Erica Seaborne: Not to dissuade you.
JPC: It is a long, hard slog, my friend. But I think Mellon really did help and continues to help while you’re in grad school. Money is a big thing. Even if you go somewhere where they fund you — because you shouldn’t go anywhere that doesn’t waive your tuition and give you a stipend and health insurance — even then that stipend is kind of peanuts, and you’re still expected to go to conferences, and buy books, and be a member of various professional associations — all these expenses start piling up that aren’t rent and food. Especially if you’re going to do research that involves traveling, that involves going onsite, money is a huge problem. Mellon provides opportunities for you to get grants, and stuff and that is great.
ES: My Mellon experience was interesting. I got to spend my time as a Mellon reading crazy-interesting books, and it got me into film studies and how to talk about images. And I wouldn’t have done that if it weren’t for Mellon. It was wonderful! And being a Mellon pushed me to think differently about my interests and what I was capable of doing, and I feel that, even now, in “the real world,” I’m always far more apt to do something that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with because it’ll work out well, it’ll be fine. I’ll spend a couple of months not knowing what I’m doing, but then I’ll get it, and it’ll be awesome.
JPC: Fake it till you make it!
JPC: That is a great lesson to learn from this. What about you, Gissell? Have you learned any lessons from Mellon yet?
GM: I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you can do it. I came into Mellon thinking, Are you sure you chose me? But it’s given me this sense, knowing that Mellon instills this kind of trust—“We chose you for a reason. We knew you could do it.” I’ve realized, I can! The work is being produced, people like it. Every time I go to a Mellon info session and talk to potential Mellons, I always tell them, “Yeah, you can do it!” because a lot of them come in saying, “I would love to do this, but it seems so scary.” So I like to tell them I was in their shoes. “You can do it, as a person of color, you can.”
JPC: Mellon also impressed upon me that “Hey, these are normal, cool, smart people interested in doing this.” You don’t have to fall prey to the grad student stereotype, which is the bloodshot eyes, eating only coffee and pizza, and never sleeping and being sad and crying all the time and hating yourself. It’s just like Bryn Mawr—stuff is hard, but you will make friends in your cohort. They’ll be weirdos, right? But they’ll also be people who will be in the trenches with you.
GM: It’s OK, it makes life interesting!
ES: For me, it was more Bryn Mawr, and it was more around “you as a human are smart, capable, valuable. Your perspective matters, and while, yes, it’s up to you to have the strength to put that forward into the world, we’ve given you all the tools to do that. Once you do it, you’re going to kick ass.” I hope that’s what everyone takes out of Bryn Mawr.
JPC: I hope so, too.
ES: I’ve noticed a difference being in the real world, working at a real-world job, comparing myself to other women, whether they’re women of color or not, of my same age. I feel that I am much more, “Just shut up and listen to me because I know what I’m talking about, I’m educated, and I have value,” whereas some of my counterparts are like, “I’m going to wait for other people to tell me what to do, or tell me what to say, or give me some kind of signal that what I’m doing is right.” Bryn Mawr made me confident. I mean, I was confident before Bryn Mawr, but Bryn Mawr just heightened it. Every time I see something for the [Defy Expectation] campaign, I think, God, they did such a good job, because that’s what Bryn Mawr taught me! They taught me to defy expectations! Yes, Mellon was part of that—that’s something I associate with my Bryn Mawr experience—but I would say it’s my experience as a whole that really taught me how to be in the world.
GM: So I’m taking a year off because I want to put time and effort into my applications. But I can only think of doing research right now. I love doing research, and I just love learning—getting my Ph.D. is the only thing I see myself doing. But I’m scared, with that one year that I take off, that I’ll lose that motivation because I won’t be in the school setting.
ES: If you have that drive, I don’t think you ever lose it. I always had that drive of I want to know the most about this subject that I can, so even while I was in the nonprofit sector, I was still doing research, reading academic articles about medical stuff, reproductive rights. I always had that drive, and that was what made me think, after a year, I want to go get my master’s because I want to learn the theory behind nonprofit leadership and what are the foundational principles of fundraising from an academic perspective. I always have that in me, that I want to be grounded in academics, even if I’m not working in the academic sector.
JPC: Yeah, I haven’t been in academia this past year. I’m in a completely different and unrelated field, but I’m still working on three different papers right now, which is ridiculous. Shouldn’t I have a weekend? We’re stupid! Erica worked and went to grad school at the same time; I’m working and writing papers and being an idiot at the same time. But she’s right, it’s a drive that doesn’t go away. Yeah, you might be tired at the end of your workday, and you might not want to deal with your applications, but you’re always going to want to know more, you’re going to want to read more, you’re always going to want to understand why things are the way they are. I wouldn’t be afraid that you’re going to lose that. I’m not worried about you at all.