A photo of Manuel Rodriguez

Manuel Rodriguez ’21 (Photo courtesy of Manuel Rodriguez)

As the time approached for Manuel Rodriguez ’21 to apply to graduate schools, “I thought I was going to be scared,” he says. For first-generation, low-income college students like him, the application process can be daunting—and the COVID-19 pandemic was complicating it further. “But luckily, due to the support of the Mellon Mays program and my advisers, it went smoother than I thought.”

He was able to apply to 14 programs in various disciplines and negotiate so they would offer him more financial support. Ultimately he accepted an offer from the University of Notre Dame that included a generous stipend, a special fellowship for Latino studies and an opportunity for him to continue focusing on the sociology of religion, having completed his senior thesis on the religious identities of Mexican American students at Amherst.

Rodriguez is one of three Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows who have recently graduated from the College and are headed into Ph.D. programs this August. Another is Daniel Delgado ’20, who has enrolled in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California, to pursue a doctorate in history. He graduated from Amherst, “obviously, during COVID times, which made things very hard,” he says, “and I think on some level accelerated my decision to apply to graduate school, because it was something that I felt secure and safe in doing, because of all the Mellon Mays support.”

A photo of Daniel Delgado

Daniel Delgado ’20 (Photo by Ellen von zur Muehlen ’20)

Delgado has dedicated his postbaccalaureate year to several different jobs and activities, including research assistantships for the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and for the National Freedom of Information Coalition. But he has also remained engaged with MMUF-related work: He expects that Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies will soon publish a paper he’s written about Cuban migrants in New York—a culmination of research he first undertook during his sophomore year. And in June, he attended the summer conference of the Social Science Research Council’s Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives Program, where MMUF alumni who recently completed Ph.D. programs shared information and resources with those who were just starting them.

“Mellon Mays has an excellent alumni network that I keep finding more and more about,” echoes Djelimory Diabate ’21, another newly graduated fellow. He notes that this network includes current and former Amherst professors such as Marisa Parham, Khary Polk and Jallicia Jolly. In an academic landscape where they remain underrepresented, he knows firsthand how important it is “for Black scholars, having those faces and support systems and networks to survive and to thrive.”

A photo of Djelimory Diabate

Djelimory Diabate ’21 (Photo courtesy of Djelimory Diabate)

Another thing Diabate has found vital about his experience in the fellowship program is “how it naturally manifested in these mentorship relationships, these relationships with academic staff and librarians,” as well as with his MMUF adviser, Olufemi Vaughan, the Alfred Sargent Lee ’41 and Mary Farley Ames Lee Professor of Black Studies. Not only did Vaughan’s own book Religion and the Making of Nigeria help to deepen and expand Diabate’s lifelong interest in African Islamic thought, but the professor “shared with me other books that really delve into the topic,” including those by scholar Ousmane Kane. And soon Diabate will work with Kane directly, as his advisee in a Ph.D. program in religion at Harvard.

In addition to expressing gratitude to their advisers and mentors, and a sense of closeness with their Amherst MMUF cohorts, Rodriguez, Delgado and Diabate all specifically credit Rosemary Effiom, Amherst’s MMUF program director, for her guidance in networking and completing grad school applications.

Now they can take their next steps toward fulfilling the fellowship program’s overarching goal of diversifying the academy. In every case, these young men want to continue to break ground and shine light on topics of study that relate to their own identities: Rodriguez is Mexican American and began thinking differently about his Catholic upbringing when he started college; Delgado’s family includes Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants; and Diabate’s parents are African American and Malian Muslims.

They also all share a desire to communicate what they’ve learned, as future professors and as some of Amherst’s very first MMUF alumni. Each may soon have an opportunity “to serve as a mentor for students who are in the program,” as Rodriguez puts it: “to provide as much knowledge as I can from my own experiences to hopefully make the experience of other students go a little bit smoother and not have as many obstacles in the way.”