In 1988, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF) was created — under the Mellon Foundation honoring Andrew W. Mellon — to support underrepresented students and others who have demonstrated a commitment to advance the humanities and social justice that broaden our understanding of American history and culture to eradicate racial disparities in academia. Within this program, undergraduate students have the opportunity to conduct research that culminates in a formal thesis paper, presentation, or both.
Wellesley College, like many other institutions, has their own chapter of this fellowship, and opens applications for sophomores in their spring semester. Once selected, the fellows begin their research project during the summer before their junior year. For example, Wellesley Senior Deyra Aguilar’s research project is an analysis on masculinity in rap culture. The analysis will not only look at how portrayals have changed over time but also how to look at the music genre as a form of resistance to white supremacy and social issues. MMUF Faculty Director Professor Irene Mata, and Program Director Teofilo Barbalho, work with these students to make sure they receive the mentorship and scholarly development they need to not only create a presentation for the regional undergraduate conferences, but also prepare for graduate study in their respective fields.
“One of the things that makes our program especially effective is the role that mentoring plays. So, our fellows work with a faculty mentor in our department, that helps guide their research and help as they begin going into academia. They get mentoring and advice on graduate school and potential graduate programs. In addition, they get mentoring by myself and the director, Teofilo Barbalho … That is the horizontal mentoring, but there is also the vertical mentoring. [Where] the seniors mentor the juniors because they are in the program together. The senior [fellows] not only mentor the juniors but they also mentor each other,” Mata said.
With help from mentors, fellows are able to design a presentation which they display at the “MMUF Northeast Regional Undergraduate Conference”, in front of other MMUF fellows. Recently, the Wellesley Mellon Mays fellows attended the regional conference at Yale University on Oct. 5. While their research is important for understanding disparities and social issues, as students it is important for them to experience speaking in an academic space about these problems.
“I think what is most important about the conferences is that they allow students to engage with their peers in an intellectual community that is solely focused on supporting their research, and their identities as young scholars,” Mata said.
Mata reflected on the past conference as not only the faculty director but also as a first-gen professor that cares deeply about her students. She hopes that her fellows will take something from this experience and that it helped strengthen their confidence.
“I hope [what] they take away from the conference is a sense of confidence in their ability to be themselves as scholars… The other thing that’s really important for students to take away is that they’re part of a community of supportive scholars, being in academia can be very isolating. Actually feeling like you’re part of a community, that helps that sense of seclusion that one can feel,” Mata said.