A Matter of Degree

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program puts doctorates within reach for minority students

Serious Stuff: The Mellon Mays program prepares the next generation of college professors, helped by leaders like Cynthia Neal Spence, UNCF/Mellon programs director at Spelman College.
Kay Hinton

An Emory program that expands opportunities for underrepresented minorities to earn doctorates and faculty positions has received renewed funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Emory’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program will receive $131,000 for the current year. Emory selects its own fellows, rising juniors in Emory College with demonstrated academic excellence and serious intent to pursue a doctoral degree in selected humanities and social sciences.

“As we prepare our diverse student body to contribute as scholars and thought leaders in the academy and beyond, we are committed to sustaining an environment at Emory that promotes full participation and inclusivity. The MMUF program provides an ideal platform to advance this objective and to support our students as they pursue their education and development as thought leaders with diverse intellectual interests and perspectives,” says Dwight McBride, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

The latest grant will pay stipends and research support to ten junior and senior fellows during the academic year. The Mellon Foundation also provides funding to cultivate the kind of social capital—mentoring, grant writing, conference presentations, how-to-publish workshops— that often makes the critical difference in graduate school and faculty success.

“MMUF is essential,” says Carol Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies, who leads the Emory program. “The glaring lack of diversity in the professoriate is evident across the United States, where, for example, Hispanic males comprise only 2 percent of all tenure-track faculty. The numbers are nearly as low or lower for African American and Native American men and women, as well as Hispanic women.”

Since it was established in 1988, MMUF has supported 762 PhD graduates. Emory, which joined the program in 2000, has launched seven so far, many of whom are now in tenure-track positions, along with several former students currently in graduate programs pursuing doctorates.

Bringing more underrepresented students into the doctoral pipeline has a profound impact on knowledge production, the retention of a diverse student body, and the intellectual strength that diversity brings to academic communities, Anderson says.

“This is why we do this work. Because of the initial leadership of the late professor Rudolph Byrd and then professor Dianne Stewart, the MMUF program at Emory is, without question, first rate,” Anderson says. “Our fellows are completing their doctorates at Harvard, Northwestern, Michigan, Brown, Rutgers, and more. They are the recipients of major fellowships, including the Fulbright.”

Since the 1990s, Emory also has served as the formal launching point annually for 106 fellows by hosting the UNCF/Mellon Summer Institute, which introduces the newly selected students to life as an academic. In addition to Emory, they come from colleges across the country as well as two universities in South Africa.

Fellows in the four-week immersion institute attend lectures on topics such as research, work-life balance, and the art and philosophy of teaching, as well as engage in weekly writing exercises to hone their critical thinking and analysis abilities. They also create a prospectus that forms the foundation for a two-year research project with faculty mentors.

The summer program prepares fellows for the MMUF, which, in addition to stipends, provides each cohort with ongoing mentoring, research support, and professional guidance from faculty, coordinators, and graduate students.

Fellows enrolled in PhD programs up to thirty-nine months after earning a bachelor’s degree are also eligible for up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness.

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