From a very young age, Wynter Pohlenz Telles Douglas '19 loved mythology. Norse, African, Greek, and Roman. Even in Flint, Michigan, the pull of the ancient world kept Wynter checking out Greek cassette tapes from the library and reading articles on the Herculaneum papyri.
Now, Wynter has organized the first national Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Conference on the Ancient World.
Wynter originated the idea two summers ago at the Mellon Mays summer program at the University of Chicago, where undergraduate Mellon Fellows develop research skills before they begin their independent projects. Many of the fellows found scholars and mentors who were deeply invested in their work and research; but the very same scholars often lacked academic interest and historical context for Wynter’s work on the ancient world. For Wynter, this was startling and disappointing.
Even at Bryn Mawr, a school known for having one of the strongest Classics departments in the nation, the classics colloquiums rarely featured speakers of color. “Every time I went I would be so hopeful,” Wynter says, “and still not see myself represented at that lectern.” And still later, during a study abroad program in Rome designed specifically for American Classics majors, Wynter experienced racism and erasure first-hand, hardening Wynter's resolve for “how vital it is that POC are uplifted and centered in fields of academia where they’re underrepresented.”
Wynter committed to creating an academic space where students of color researching aspects of the ancient world “weren’t fetishized for their race, but appreciated for their research and their perspective.” And this resolve, in turn, fueled Wynter’s plans for the MMUF conference.
The conference itself is funded in part by the Tri-Co’s Classics departments, the President and Provost’s office, the Bryn Mawr and Haverford MMUF, the Hurford Center at Haverford, as well as a mini-grant from the Classical Association of the Atlantic States. It is student-run and student-supported.
Ana Alvarez '19, another Mellon fellow and conference co-coordinator, says she sees it as “one step towards changing that lack of diversity [in studies of the ancient world]—allowing us to present research that in the future we hope will inspire students of color much like ourselves, and will allow them to delve into the field with multiple role models to serve as their mentors."
A major in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Ana studied abroad in Greece and excavated in Cyprus; in both programs, she found herself in the minority as a woman of color. She wants "to see more and more minorities considering a career in archeology as a tangible choice and not just a profession left to be portrayed in film and not in reality.”
Both Wynter and Ana note that the conference is intentionally multidisciplinary—its focus is on topics of the ancient world, but the students’ work encompasses Philosophy, History of Art, Political Science, Classical Languages, Migrant Studies, Historical Linguistics, and more. Wynter hopes that it will not only uplift individual voices and students, but create networks of support and community within those students’ chosen areas of academic interest.
“The scholars participating are excited to meet one another, to share resources, to celebrate each individual’s work, and to be reminded that they are not alone,” says Wynter.
The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Conference on the Ancient World will take place Nov. 9-11 at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Nine Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows from around the country will present their work to both colleagues and a broader Tri-College audience. This showcase of undergraduate research seeks to bolster interest in studies of the ancient world and aims to create a community of support for scholars of color to consider careers in academia from which they have been historically excluded.