When Howard University named Ben Vinson III ’92 president earlier this month, it marked a milestone not just for the historian of the Latin American African diaspora, but for an extraordinary Dartmouth program of which he is an alumnus: the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship.
The fellowship was created in 1988 by the Mellon Foundation to encourage undergraduates from underrepresented minorities to pursue academic careers in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The program builds on the legacy of the late Benjamin Elijah Mays, a scholar and educator known for mentoring a generation of social justice activists, including Martin Luther King Jr.
Dartmouth was one of the first schools invited to join the program, which now exists at nearly 50 institutions nationwide and in South Africa.
Beginning sophomore summer through senior year, fellows receive stipends and funds for research and conferences, have opportunities to receive mentorship and grow peer networks, meet regularly with mentors and advisers, and develop skills on everything from writing and research to the grad school application process.
A Record of Success
Though Dartmouth’s program is small—annually accepting a cohort of five Mellon Mays Fellows and three Dartmouth Associate Fellows (funded through Dartmouth)—it has been remarkably successful, says Michelle Warren, a professor of comparative literature who has directed MMUF at Dartmouth since 2010.
“I think the secret of our success is our focus on relationships. An academic career can seem full of mystery and risk. We provide lots of material information and training, but we focus on building community so that students can feel confident that they won’t face the challenges alone,” says Warren, who also serves as senior adviser for faculty development, diversity, and inclusion for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“Our alums are key to this cycle of success. When current undergraduates see what their peers from similar backgrounds have done, they know that they too can succeed and become part of the next generation of knowledge-makers and justice-oriented educators.”
Of more than 200 Dartmouth Mellon Mays alumni, 67% have gone on to pursue doctoral degrees—more than double the national ratio of BA-level graduates to PhD enrollments. More than 30 have gone on to careers in academia, including Vinson, who was the first of the program’s alumni to complete a PhD.
This year alone, six alums—a record—have started or are about to start tenure-track positions, and two alums from the Class of 2007 were awarded tenure at their institutions last year—including Vaughn Booker ’07, an associate professor of religion and African and African American studies.
Also this year, a record five members of the MMUF Class of 2023—who began the program as rising juniors—have been accepted into PhD programs. And Mellon Mays alumni have been the recipients of numerous prestigious awards and fellowships, including Fulbright scholarships, Ford Foundation predoctoral fellowships, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Guidance That Leads to Grad School
“Programs like Mellon Mays matter because they help students from marginalized communities realize that while academic institutions were not built for us or by us, we can be researchers and academics,” says Guadalupe Ortega ’23, a double major in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies (modified with Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies) and linguistics (modified with anthropology) from Escondido, Calif.
Ortega will start a PhD program in feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this fall. “Personally, if I had not been in Mellon Mays, I don’t think I would have written a thesis or applied to grad school, because these were not steps that I knew much about or felt prepared for,” Ortega says.
Next year, Lizet Garcia ’23, a geography major from Hawthorne, Calif., will be pursuing a PhD in geography in the City University of New York Graduate Center’s department of earth and environmental studies. Garcia says that Warren and MMUF Associate Coordinator Sarah Chaney, a senior lecturer in the Institute of Writing and Rhetoric, provide invaluable advice on everything from developing a thesis to cultivating relationships with mentors.
The informal motto among Mellon Mays Fellows? “Trust Professor Warren,” Garcia says.
“The biggest help was the guidance through applying to grad school and to fellowships,” they say. “When I visited grad programs, I talked to students who didn’t know that you should email professors and talk to current students prior to applying. Had I not been in Mellon, I wouldn’t have known to build those connections.”
Jimena Perez ’23, a geography major from Lynwood, Calif., plans to pursue a PhD in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. She credits Mellon Mays with helping her develop a network of mentors.
“At the beginning of the program, we made a mentor map, and mine was very small—maybe a handful of people, family members, friends, and some faculty. Now it’s grown to even include people from outside of Dartmouth,” Perez says.
Garcia and Perez, along with Gabriel Gilbert ’23, a Mellon Mays Fellow who plans to earn a PhD in linguistics at the University of Chicago, have each received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships to pursue graduate study. Gilbert has also received a Ford Foundation predoctoral fellowship. A fifth Mellon Mays classmate, Aaní Perkins ’23, will begin a PhD program in linguistics at the University of British Columbia next year.
Diversifying the Professoriate
The power of Mellon Mays continues beyond grad school acceptance letters, says Feyaad Allie ’16, a former government major and geography minor who in June will graduate from Stanford with a PhD in political science. This fall, he is headed to Harvard for a one-year postdoctoral fellowship, after which he will join the Harvard faculty as an assistant professor of government. He’s the first alumnus of the Dartmouth-funded associate fellows program to become a professor.
Allie, who studies democracy, identity, and inter-group relations in the context of India, is one of “a large group of MMUF alums who was offered faculty positions this year,” says Warren, who keeps track of Mellon Mays alumni.
“That really tells a story about the impact of MMUF. Dartmouth faculty can see that these are people who in their recent memory were in their classroom. And now they are colleagues—who can become the PhD advisers of the students in class now. Opportunities to diversify the professoriate really are expanding.”
For his part, Allie says, “Academia is a challenging field to navigate. There are a lot of unwritten rules and insider networks. These obstacles often differentially disadvantage students from under-represented backgrounds. Being part of MMUF helped me learn about some of these unwritten rules and set me up to be successful as an academic.”
Another recent alum to join the professoriate is Allison Puglisi ’15, an assistant professor of history at Vassar College who specializes in Black thought and organizing in the 20th century United States. Puglisi is currently working on a project that explores how housing activists laid the groundwork for Black environmental activism.
Puglisi, who majored in history modified with women’s and gender studies and went on to earn her doctorate in American studies from Harvard with a certificate in women, gender, and sexuality, credits Mellon Mays with teaching her to “be proactive in advocating for my own education—and now, that of my students.”
“As a college student before MMUF, I went to class to ‘receive’ knowledge. But MMUF taught me I could actually help create it as a researcher,” Puglisi says. “As a professor, I feel glad to do both. It’s an exchange—I like to think students learn from me, and I learn from them too.”
Similarly, anthropologist and digital ethnographer Kimberly Hassel ’16 recently joined the faculty of the University of Arizona as an assistant professor of East Asian studies. She studies digital culture, youth culture, and identity in Japan.
“MMUF was an important community for me as a Dominican New Yorker at Dartmouth, as it was one of the few spaces for students of color on campus,” Hassel says. “I often felt inspired and motivated by my cohort’s advanced research and insightful discussions of positionality in the academy. I was encouraged to pursue my research interests, challenge systems of oppression in the academy, and be unapologetically myself. Thanks to the support of MMUF, I became the first in my family to receive a PhD and take on a career as a professor in the United States.”
Puglisi says that one of the key insights she took from Mellon Mays is the reminder “that no one gets anywhere alone. I have such gratitude for the mentors who helped prepare me for the profession. Now that I’m here, I feel privileged to be that for others.”
To that end, Hassel has a message for current Mellon Mays Fellows: “Do not hesitate to reach out to MMUF alumni! We are excited to hear from you and mentor you.”