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Mellon Mays fellows score grad school admissions

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Sun, 05/13/2018

Six of 10 Mellon Mays undergraduate fellows graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences are headed directly to graduate school, in higher numbers than ever. They will attend schools from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the University of Heidelberg, and all 10 look forward to becoming professors who can change students’ lives.

The Mellon Mays program began in 1988 at eight universities and colleges, including Cornell. It aims to boost the number of faculty members from groups underrepresented in higher education.

“We’re all from marginalized communities, so seeing someone who is like you as your professor can mean so much. It meant a lot to me,” said Ruby Bafu ’18, who will attend UW-Madison for a doctorate in sociology. “As a professor, being able to decide what we cover in class and teaching from my perspective, it will change the narrative. That’s what we need.”

Kevin Cruz ’18 said he hopes to impact students on a personal level. “Some of the best life advice I’ve gotten has been from professors,” said Cruz, who will pursue his doctoral degree at UCLA in Chicana/o studies. “I wish I could be that for someone else. There aren’t many professors who can speak to my particular experience as a person of color in the U.S.”

Open to those committed to increasing diversity in the professorate including those from historically disadvantaged groups, the program provides financial and academic support for undergraduates planning to pursue doctoral degrees in selected fields, particularly the humanities and social sciences.

Typically, up to five students are chosen at the end of their sophomore year to enter Cornell’s program. Working with a faculty mentor, each fellow develops, researches and writes a 25-page scholarly paper by graduation. They also take part in twice-monthly meetings to discuss their research projects and take workshops on topics such as taking the GRE graduate school entry exam, writing and research, presenting at academic conferences and applying to graduate school. Fellows also attend and present their research at an annual conference and can take advantage of opportunities for summer research and travel.

Courtney Carr ’18, an Africana studies major who is taking a gap year before pursuing a master’s in Pan African studies, spent the summer between her junior and senior years as an intern in Tanzania, working with a program that helps women who are escaping female genital cutting. “It was a transformative experience,” she said. “Once I traveled there and saw the faces of the people behind this topic, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Salvador Herrera ’18, an English major, is heading to UCLA to pursue his doctoral degree. One of his classes opened his eyes to opportunities to write about literature, and he became particularly interested in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, MFA ’95. Herrera decided to focus his research on feminist critics’ opposite readings of the same text and incorporation of their views of Diaz as a person into their criticism.

Although there is more coverage of Latinx literature today than before, Herrera said, there are still only a few Latina/o professors at Cornell and at many universities.

Since 1988, 21 Cornell Mellon fellows have earned a Ph.D. and 19 are enrolled in doctoral programs, said Chad Coates, advising dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the program. Samantha Sheppard, assistant professor of performing and media arts, is faculty director for the program.

“It has been an immense pleasure working with such a highly engaged interdisciplinary group of young scholars and knowledge-producers who are truly committed to transforming the academy,” Coates said. “The partnership and support of the faculty mentors has been critical to the success of our Mellon fellows. Professors Anna HaskinsLeslie Adelson and Ella Diaz, among others, have been phenomenal faculty mentors.”

Other Mellon Mays graduates:

  • Jendayi Brooks-Flemister, an English major focusing on creative writing, who will take a gap year before applying to graduate programs;
  • Nicholas Caldwell, an English major, who will pursue a master’s in English at New York University;
  • Paola Camacho-Lemus, an Asian studies and religious studies major, who will pursue a master’s in Asian studies at UCLA;
  • Leighton Fernando Cook, a German area studies and history major, is headed to Cambodia in the summer to do an internship with the Center for Khmer Studies before beginning classes at the University of Heidelberg, Germany through the Cornell-Heidelberg Exchange Fellowship;
  • José Armando Fernández Guerrero, a College Scholar who is also majoring in linguistics and anthropology, who is headed to UC San Diego for a doctoral degree in linguistics;
  • Benjamin Salinas, an anthropology major, who will take a gap year before applying to graduate schools

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

This also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.