A man in a suit seated with his legs crossed talking to a group of people and gesturing with his hands
Norm Jones, chief equity and inclusion officer, pursued the Mellon Mays grant for Amherst.

Reflecting on his arrival at Amherst in 2016, Norm Jones, chief equity and inclusion officer, says that “Amherst believed enrollment was our focus. But it’s not enough to increase access for Black and brown students. We have to focus on their experience after the moment of enrollment.”

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a national grant pursued by Jones and secured by the College in 2018 (see “Ph.Diversity,” Spring 2019), is one way to do that. Its mission is to address underrepresentation in college and university faculty by funding and mentoring undergraduates on their way to careers in academia.

“It is not a foregone conclusion in the mind of the academy that Black and brown students will pursue Ph.D.s and diversify the professorate,” Jones says. “It can’t be left to chance. We have to hardwire the system by making sure they begin their course of action as undergraduates.”

MMUF alums then, ideally, go on to diversify institutions of higher education—not only by their presence but also by contributing to scholarship in which certain voices have been historically silenced. As MMUF scholar Djelimory Diabate ’21 puts it, “The question for me is: What is this knowledge for? That’s something that drives the purpose of getting an education.”

If it sounds aspirational, it’s not. Or not only. Because MMUF is less a self-congratulatory celebration of diversity than a material proposition of equity. And it’s not just about what the students might do—it’s about what they’re doing now: how they’re thinking and thriving and changing Amherst in the process.

“Over half of our student body is students of color,” says Jones. But there are dynamics that can obligate some students—especially those who hold marginalized identities—to lead triple lives: “You can be one way in the classroom, then outside you can be more authentic, and at home you can be fully authentic,” Jones says. “That requires psychological, emotional and physiological labor that ultimately chips away at your experience. But when you have a Rosemary in your life, you know there’s a space where you can bring all of that.”

He’s talking about Rosemary Effiom, the MMUF director at Amherst. Three years into the program—15 students altogether—Effiom is thrilled with the successes. The first cohort are heading to grad school, and the current seniors are applying to national fellowships and Ph.D. programs.

Chimaway Lopez ’20, a Ph.D. candidate in Native American studies at UC Davis, identifies MMUF as a major factor in his decision to continue his education. “Beyond all the practical things, there’s the encouragement,” he says, “the whole network of people supporting each other.”

A woman with her arms crossed smiling at the camera
Jallicia Jolly, a postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor, is a Mellon Mays alum.

That network includes faculty mentors, subject librarians, Writing Center staff. “I had a chance to access classic Arabic texts,” says Diabate, a Black studies and Asian languages and civilizations major. “I wouldn’t have even been aware that I could do that as an undergraduate. I worked with Missy Roser [’94], who got me texts from all over the world.” (Shoutout to undergrads shouting out research librarians!)

Effiom uses the word energizing to talk about the newest cohort: “They’re interrogating and advancing research in so many fields. And working with Jallicia was amazing.” That’s Jallicia Jolly, a postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor in American studies and Black studies. She led the new cohort through summer research training.

Jolly is herself an MMUF alum; she graduated from Williams before pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. For Jolly, what was transformative about MMUF was a combination of mentorship, support and demystification. (“I am not exactly sure what you do!” Jolly said to the first Williams professor who asked if she was interested in pursuing academia.) “Mellon removes barriers and connects students to support structures and mechanisms to develop multiple pathways for their learning and advancement,” Jolly says.

Then there’s the money. For Jolly, who is, like many MMUF scholars, a first-generation college student from a low-income background, “the MMUF provided a stipend to live, eat, pay bills. It provided the time and space to do research in a way that I wouldn’t have had access to if I hadn’t had that kind of funding. You can’t fully have a meaningful conversation about faculty diversity—or, I should say, the lack thereof—without making the necessary investments in equity-oriented initiatives like MMUF.”

Plus, the students identify their cohorts as lifelong friends. Manuel Rodriguez ’21, a Latinx and Latin American studies major, describes the way the program connects students through scholarship: “We’re like, One day, we’re going to be citing ourselves.” And he laughs, but he’s not kidding.

MMUF is not a gift tied up in a bow, handed to Black and brown students who might want to earn doctorates. It’s not a cup that was empty and is now filled. It’s a worldview. It’s the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg turns out to be the academy itself. “There’s this general discourse—not only in the academy—that we can’t identify Black talent,” Jolly says. “In the academy, the version of that statement is literally that statement. Or it’s We can’t identify Black faculty that do x studies. Mellon is another way to multiply opportunities for intervention. Let’s change how we recognize talent, and what it means to be a professor, and who can.”

Given that access is no longer the main question for Amherst, Jones is pivoting to the next one: Now that you’re in, what will you do, and what will we offer you? “Well, we already know what they’re going to do,” he says: “They’re going to shine. So it’s more about what we offer. MMUF is just one example of the way we position this special cohort for success, with great intentionality.”

“MMUF is more than a program,” he adds. “It’s a prototype for the College.”

Photographs by Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17 (Jones) and Princess Williams (Jolly)