“I was probably going to do econ, ” Daniel Delgado ’20 says about the major he presumed he’d declare at Amherst. He’d go into finance or consulting, he thought. Only then he took the course “Race and Revolution in Cuban History” with Solsiree del Moral, associate professor of American studies and black studies. “I did a 100 percent change,” he says, grinning. “I’m a black studies major now. And double-majoring in Latinx studies.”
Delgado’s new plan also includes getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor—a path that had seemed “dubious” to him when he first imagined it. “I’m first-generation American,” he explains. “My parents are immigrants from Cuba and Nicaragua. They pictured that I would go to college for four years and get a job. This is what we sacrificed for. Mellon Mays provided the structure and the resources to demystify the whole Ph.D. program, and then to see myself doing it.”
Delgado is one of five juniors in the inaugural cohort of Amherst’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), a $500,000, four-year grant the College secured in 2018. This Mellon Foundation fellowship is currently held by nearly 50 schools—with more than 5,000 students selected since its inception in 1988—and its mission is “to address, over time, the problem of underrepresentation in the academy at the level of college and university faculties.” To that end, the MMUF seeks out students from underrepresented minority groups (or students who have otherwise demonstrated a commitment to the goals of the program) and commits to supporting them, via mentorship, funding and networking opportunities, in their pursuit of doctorates in the humanities and social sciences. Or, to put it slightly differently, the MMUF seeks to recruit and reroute talented scholars, like Delgado, from professional careers into academic ones.
“We’re looking around at the institutions and realizing the depth and extent of underrepresentation, and what that means for the wider society,” says the Mellon Foundation’s Armando Bengochea. “What are the implications, for undergraduates, of never having a black or Latino professor, and therefore never seeing that person as a knowledge creator?”
Picture academic diversity as a life cycle: MMUF undergraduates are like academic acorns, growing into the forest that will make and shelter the next acorns. Acorns that are, frankly, sick of the fact that so few of the trees around them have historically been oaks.
And it’s working. “We’re seeing a rapid intensification of what I would call multiplier effects,” Bengochea says. “These are leading to large numbers of students finally finishing their Ph.D.s and coming into the job market in large numbers.” While the first 15 years of the program produced a modest 100 or so Ph.D.s altogether, the next 15 years have seen a burgeoning bubble of more than 700. “It took 20 years to build that bulge, but now we’re seeing students finishing Ph.D.s and coming on the market 50 and 60 at a time.” Those multiplier effects describe the happy spiral upward of diversification: the more the academy recruits and retains students who become professors of color, the more mentorship opportunities there are for students of color who want to become professors.