Chimaway Lopez '20
“It's been an acceleration of my understanding of academics, of graduate school, of what a professor even is,” says Chimaway Lopez ’20.

“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.

Marisa Parham
“If you don't know how it works, everything looks like magic. Like something you can’t have,” says Professor of English Marisa Parham, an early recipient of an MMUF.

“I only ever had one black female professor,” says Professor of English Marisa Parham, reflecting on more than a decade of academic training. She was among the early recipients of an MMUF, in 1994, as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. (Khary Polk, an assistant professor of black studies and sexuality, women’s and gender studies at Amherst, received one from Oberlin in 1999.) Parham went on to graduate magna cum laude in political science and English literature, and then, in 2004, to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University in English and comparative literature. At Amherst, she has directed the Five College Digital Humanities program, another Mellon-funded initiative. Today, she teaches courses in English, black studies and film and media studies, and serves as a faculty diversity and inclusion officer.

This national program seeks to reroute talented scholars from professional careers into academic ones.

In keeping with the vision of a self-perpetuating program, she also mentors an Amherst MMUF student, Kolawole Heyward-Rotimi ’20, a double major in English and computer science. In fact, every MMUF recipient at Amherst has a faculty mentor who provides guidance on an independent research project. Under Parham’s direction, Heyward-Rotimi is researching the intersections of digital and physical realities. Another MMUF scholar, English and psychology major Lanelle Nwogalanya ’20, is doing a project on mental illness in black women’s poetry, mentored by English professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander. And Chimaway Lopez ’20 is working with American studies professor Lisa Brooks on an environmental history of colonialism, looking at indigenous adaption in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he’s from. “It’s been an acceleration of my understanding of academics, of graduate school, of what a professor even is, of how you navigate the space of a college,” Lopez says. “To be honest, I didn’t really know about being an academic until the Mellon Mays. It’s really been the Mellon Mays that’s made me understand exactly the topography of that world. The lay of the land.”

For Parham, the MMUF was, and still is, less about aspiration and inspiration, and more about material access to resources. In conversation, she is careful to emphasize the extent to which “intellectual life is tied to capital,” and when I asked about the most lasting impact of the fellowship, she said, “It was mainly money—to fund research, to pay for trips. The money made it easy to try things—it was this incredible gift. I traveled around the world. I applied to more grad schools. Mellon was way ahead of the curve in asking people to manage their research lives as a financial consideration. It just professionalizes you, in a positive way, much earlier. You know how to budget, you know how much money you need to take a trip—but you also know that kind of thing is possible.”

Parham is critical not only of the idea that intellectual life is somehow tainted by money but also of the assumption that a college education automatically launches students—especially students of color—into jobs and careers. “Amherst is a resource-rich environment, but it won’t extend out of Amherst unless you know how to make that happen. There are mechanisms through which you accomplish things—and mechanisms through which you even want things in the first place,” she says. “If you don’t know how it works, everything looks like magic. Like something you can’t have.”

Rosemary Effiom
Rosemary Effiom was hired last year as director of Amherst’s MMUF program. She works from multiple angles to help demystify the academic career.

At Amherst, this demystification happens in a number of ways. Most of them are overseen by Rosemary Effiom, director of Amherst’s MMUF program, who was hired last year after 10 years of similar work at Bowdoin. Once granted funding, each institution administers the program independently, and at Amherst this includes an advisory committee made up of Brooks, Del Moral and Cobham-Sander, along with Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones and professors David Cox, Allen Hart and Paul Schroeder Rodríguez.

Students apply in the spring of their sophomore year, and Effiom, who works out of the Office of Student Academic Development, does everything—with support from the advisory board—from reading applications and selecting the fellows, to helping coordinate faculty mentorship and research funding, to helping students hone their academic social skills, including professional etiquette, interviewing and what she calls “elevator-speech summaries of who they are and what they do. (“Your students’ elevator speeches are amazing,” I wrote her truthfully after interviewing them.) Effiom also organizes all aspects of professional-development programming: MMUF students are required to meet with her and each other regularly, attend conferences and spend a stipend-supported summer in a research training program that challenges them to sharpen their skills in critical reading, oral presentation, active listening and collective responsibility—and requires them to live together as a cohort.

Close to half of Amherst students self-identify as students of color.

The fellows are not bound by the program’s hope that they’ll pursue Ph.D.s, but there is a good-faith assumption that they will. Their research projects will typically evolve into honors theses and, ideally, all of the students will apply to graduate school during senior year. But even if they’re not ready to apply, Effiom will have them take the GRE, work on personal statements and CVs, and secure letters of recommendation—“whatever might be a hurdle during their gap year,” she says. After graduation, the MMUF offers continued programming, networking and financial support to graduate students, scholars pursuing their first jobs, and even young faculty. “Mellon connections and resources last throughout career,” Parham says. “So we range now from undergrads through college presidents, and still attend retreats and conferences together.”

Jones describes Amherst’s pursuit of the MMUF this way: “It’s a question of what we’re doing as an organization as a result of the difference we’ve amassed.” And what that difference looks like, statistically, is this: 45 percent of U.S. students at Amherst self-identify as students of color. Twenty-two percent of the student body are eligible for Pell grants, and 17 percent are first-generation college students. “It was a pressing hope and requirement for me that we get the Mellon Mays,” Jones says. “A school with the kind of student demography that we have should have certain things—certain processes and programs—in place as a foregone conclusion, and the Mellon Mays was one of them.”

In 1988, its inaugural year, the MMUF (then called the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship) was granted to eight institutions—Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Cornell, Hunter, Oberlin, Swarthmore, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania—followed the next year by 11 more schools, including Harvard, Yale, Williams and the United Negro College Fund consortium of historically black colleges and universities.

“We’d been interested in becoming an MMUF school for more than a decade,” says Lisa Stoffer, director of Amherst’s grants office. Eventually, a meeting between Amherst President Biddy Martin and Mellon President Earl Lewis allowed the College to express its intention to address issues of inclusion in academics and student life. Instead of a Mellon Mays, though, the foundation awarded Amherst in December 2015 a $1.5 million “Reimagining the Commons” grant, the goal of which is “to adapt residential liberal arts education to a new population of students and changing circumstances.” The result is a multipronged effort, coordinated by multiple offices, which includes, among other work, redesigning majors to include previously underrepresented points of view, and training faculty in more inclusive ways to teach.

Amherst became one of the most interesting student populations in the whole sector,” says one expert.

I asked Stoffer about the relationship between that grant and the Amherst Uprising of November 2015, in which students converged in Frost Library to voice their frustration with racism and marginalization on campus; to express their pain, rage and alienation; and to call on the College to redress a number of contributing factors. While the administration was already in discussions with Mellon at this point, Stoffer says, “the Uprising gave voice to some of the aspirations and concerns the College was already sensing about the importance of building a more truly inclusive community, so the award turned out to be well-timed.” Similarly well-timed was the 2016 hiring of Jones to lead the new Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“The Amherst Uprising was salient in my conversations,” Jones says of his hiring process. “The desire to have a chief diversity officer was a big part of the conversation during the Uprising.” The stated mission of his office is “to support and sustain the growth of a just, equitable, vibrant and intellectually challenging educational environment, and a culture of critical and compassionate campus engagement” and, to bring this back around to the Mellon Mays, the No. 1 goal of the office’s strategic plan is to “recruit, support and retain diverse faculty scholars.”

Not coincidentally, then, the one Mellon grant helped beget the other: the very next year, Amherst was invited to apply for the MMUF. “Norm was instrumental in meeting the Mellon Mays program staff and making the case for why we were well-positioned to be a Mellon Mays school,” Stoffer says. When I asked Bengochea about why he invited Amherst to apply at this particular moment, he replied, “Over the last decade, Amherst rapidly diversified and became one of the most interesting student populations in the whole sector of private liberal arts colleges. Amherst not only has a very diverse population by race and ethnicity—it’s also more diverse socioeconomically than its peers. Amherst came to our attention for being an institution that had make a real push to create an environment with large numbers of underrepresented students.” He qualified this praise with an identification of the very problem the MMUF seeks to solve: “Amherst has made great progress diversifying the student body—but what about the faculty? It doesn’t keep pace, and that is the case at all the institutions Amherst compares itself to.”

At Amherst, as of fall 2018, 20 percent of tenure-line faculty are domestic people of color. Mellon-Mays’ most recent statistics, from 2015, put the number of full-time black, Latinx or Native American faculty at 8 percent nationwide. Cornell cited similar statistics—at least across the Ivy League—as recently as 2017. Compare those numbers to the nation as a whole. As of 2017, according to the U.S. Census  Bureau, 18.1 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic or Latinx, 13.4 percent is black or African American, and 1.3 percent is Native American. College and university faculties are disproportionately white. The Mellon Foundation understands that this isn’t a problem to be wished away. It’s a problem, like most problems, that requires an investment of resources to solve it.

For Daniel Delgado, the MMUF legitimized his turn from the lucrative future he’d pictured toward something more uncertain and less financially rewarding. “Having the fellowship helped everything make more sense,” he says. “It helped me say, I’ll make this choice, but I’ll be OK. I’m going to have the resources to do this.” Mellon Mays is also helping the students make sense of diverse passions that have not always seemed sensible to them. Katy Correia ’20, a double major in Spanish and psychology, wrote from Madrid, where she studied during the fall semester: “What’s so great about this program is that it has given my love of languages and literature a future, while for many this interest is nothing more than a college major which does not translate into the working world.”

Kolawole Heyward-Rotimi '20
Every MMUF student at Amherst does a research project. Kolawole Heyward-Rotimi ’20 is studying the intersections of digital and physical realities.

Kolawole Heyward-Rotimi echoed this, writing from Shanghai, where he was studying for the semester: “I love how clearly the program allows me to see what a career path in academia would be like, along with giving me tools to tackle the challenges that come with that path.”

“Also,” he added, “my cohort is amazing! We all have so many cool ideas, and I can’t wait to see how we’ll support each other in the future.” This value of the MMUF—the power of the cohort—cannot be overstated. “The cohort is fabulous,” Chimaway Lopez said. “They’ve taught me a lot and inspired me. I feel like we’ll be collaborating for a long time to come.” Lanelle Nwogalanya emailed me about the gratitude she feels for her fellow fellows: “After spending a good chunk of last summer with them doing our research projects, they’re like family to me.”

Jones sees the cohort model as integral to the future of effective learning: “Student success that’s anchored in cohort-based learning increases just by virtue of the fact that it involves a group of supportive peers and a caring older adult.” It’s a lot easier to stick with something hard when you’re in a community that gets what you do—that is, in fact, doing the same thing you are. Everyone I interviewed beamed when I mentioned the MMUF cohort, and when I interviewed the students themselves, I understood why. These are brilliant scholars, yes, but beyond that, they are golden people. They cannot talk about each other or their mentors without brimming with excitement, with respect. They make Amherst College feel like a small town to me—like we’re sending our pride and joy off to their bright futures with the hope that they’ll return. The world, academic and otherwise, is going to be better with them in it—it is already. Jones put it this way: “The MMUF is a small example of not only the brilliance of the individuals in our community but also how that brilliance ends up changing the community.”

One student imagines returning to his Chumash community in Santa Barbara to teach indigenous studies.

It also demonstrates how academia—not just law or public policy—can be a viable way to pursue social justice, both through the very fact of historically underrepresented students entering their fields, and through the content of the research they’re doing in those fields. After describing his project on Afro-Cuban migration to New York, Delgado explained how he’s looking at “omissions in larger narratives about what history is. What’s omitted, what’s silenced.
What if we center the margins in the larger historical narrative? What if we take those actors to be at the center of the story?”

Lopez imagines someday returning to his Chumash community in Santa Barbara to teach indigenous studies. “I’m looking at indigenous survival and adaptation,” he says of his research. “Reimagining our existence is really saying, What are the possibilities of the future?

Katy Correia '20
“This program has given my love of languages and literature a future, while for many this interest is nothing more than a college major,” says Katy Correia ’20.

I recently attended a staff development workshop called “Race, Racism and Racial Equality,” sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in which educator Tanya Williams encouraged us to think about the future—to imagine our ideal one. She evoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “Everyone loves the ‘dream’ speech—but we’re not doing the work of having the dream.” Then she asked us what a world without racism might look like. I’d just been interviewing the MMUF students. And I couldn’t help thinking that, however that more perfect world might look, they would be part of it. That much I was sure of. 

Catherine Newman ’90, P’22, is the academic department coordinator of Amherst’s Creative Writing Center. She is the author of Waiting for Birdy, Catastrophic Happiness and, most recently, the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night.

Photos by: Mark Ostow