Emory Report
June 20, 2005
Volume 58, Number 33


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June 20, 2005
MMUF summer program trains future educators

BY Michael Terrazas

The 35 students gathered in White Hall on a muggy, mid-June afternoon did not talk like typical undergraduates. In discussing positive influences on their lives, they talked about steering younger people toward careers in academia just as their own mentors had done. They referred to each other as “colleagues,” to their collective selves as a “cohort.”

In fact, the students were far from typical; they were this year’s participants in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, supported by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and they’ve gathered at Emory this summer for a crash course in the field in which they all aspire to work: higher education

“The purpose [of MMUF] is to increase the number of historically underrepresented groups and others [in higher education] who share the commitment to earning a Ph.D., teaching, creating research and eradicating disparities based on race,” said Rudolph Byrd, associate professor of American studies in the Institute for Liberal Arts, who’s directed the MMUF summer institute since it came to Emory in 1994.

Though this is the summer program’s 12th year on campus, Emory has not always had students represented; for many years, the program was open only to the 38 UNCF member institutions. In 2001, Emory sent five fellows, then the next year five more were added from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, giving the program a distinctly international identity.

Programming is intense for the fellows throughout their month-long residency. Faculty not only from Emory but from other institutions around the country (Spelman and Morehouse colleges locally, Dillard and Rutgers universities nationally, to name a few) lead sessions on everything from how to develop a dissertation proposal, to a multipart series on “The Life of the Mind,” to a historical context for the traditional liberal-arts college.

On June 13, the students spent an afternoon at Spelman learning about the life of Ben-jamin E. Mays, the renowned African American educator who served as Morehouse president from 1940–67 (and who serves as half of the program’s namesake). The next day, the students were challenged to think about how they might live up to the ideals Mays exemplified.

“We have high expectations of all of you because we know you’re the cream of the crop,” said Lydia English, senior program officer at the Mellon Foundation, visiting the fellows from New York. English said the program—MMUF is one component of a pipeline program that follows students through their graduate careers—has encompassed 2,361 students since it was launched in 1987. Of those, 160 have earned their doctorates, and English said as many as 500 more are on the way. Ten tenured faculty members have emerged, and some 26 former fellows are teaching at MMUF-associated schools. English said 99.9 percent of MMUF fellows obtain their four-year degrees, and 65 percent go on to graduate school (sporting an average 3.83 GPA).

Nabihah Tayob, a junior at the University of Cape Town, is one student hoping to live up to the Mays ideal; majoring in applied mathematics and statistics, she plans to diversify a male-dominated field. “This program seemed to fit all my requirements, and it allowed me to go overseas and gave me support for my Ph.D.,” Tayob said.

Emory junior Shawn Finnell said MMUF has shown her how to balance a lifelong dream of going to law school with a desire to enter academia. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “The program’s mission is to bring minorities into the academy, so it was speaking to goals in my life.”

“It’s been really wonderful to observe fellows who participated in the summer institute in the early ’90s, moved through graduate school, earned their doctorates and now are members of faculty,” said Byrd, adding that no other school within the MMUF consortium—which includes all UNCF institutions as well as 37 others, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Chicago, etc.—boasts such a program. “That’s what makes this particular experience powerful.

Visiting a session on June 14, Provost Earl Lewis seemed to agree. “I like how Mellon not only has said it wants to diversify the professoriate,” he said, “but it has supported that wish.”

Turning to the fellows, Lewis urged them to consider a time line larger than their own. “Think about the contract you will sign with yourself,” he said. “The greatest legacy you could leave is to look both backwards and forwards, to keep in mind the people who came before and also those who will follow.”