Reflections of Faculty Pipeline Program Progeny
Undergraduate Research Fellowships Often Are the Catalytic Event That Excite Students About Careers in the Professoriate
NEW YORK — Not until his undergraduate years at Carleton College did Dr. Matthew Clayton start getting a sense that life in the academy suited his sensibility and talents.
Teaching fellow students at his college’s math skills instruction center, winning a prestigious undergraduate research fellowship and excelling in the classroom convinced the Minneapolis native to become a college professor.
“By the time I was a junior I knew what I wanted to do,” Clayton says. “I liked teaching and it was fun for me.”
Since graduating from college with a double major in math and economics in 1991, Clayton has followed his instincts. He pursued a doctorate in finance at Northwestern University. After completing the Ph.D. program in 1996, Clayton became an assistant professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
At NYU, Clayton teaches corporate finance to undergraduates and M.B.A. students. One of two Black finance professors in the business school, Clayton already has made an impact as a professor by getting nominated for teacher of the year awards at the university.
“I feel confident about my teaching abilities,” Clayton says, adding that the major challenge to securing tenure is getting enough well regarded articles published as a junior faculty member.
Yet finding the time to conduct research and write articles are tasks Clayton must balance with teaching and helping out with the Stern school’s diversity initiatives.
“It’s been overwhelming at times,” Clayton says, adding that he’s gotten numerous requests by administrators to speak at functions, recruit minority M.B.A. students, participate on panel discussions and other tasks, many of which are not asked of White junior faculty members.
Clayton, like many young Blacks entering the ranks of academe in the 1990s, arrived at his present position with the experience of having participated in a special minority pipeline program. In Clayton’s case, winning a Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship while at Carleton College identified him as a promising graduate school prospect.
The fellowship program, launched in 1988, has awarded more than 1,200 talented Black, Latino and Native American college students with summer research grants, research stipends and mentoring from faculty members.
The program, which is available to students at 27 predominantly White institutions and the 39 United Negro College Fund schools, chooses 160 students annually during their sophomore year to participate when they are juniors and seniors.
Students who pursue doctorates in the humanities and designated fields in the sciences and social sciences are eligible for undergraduate loan repayment assistance up to $10,000 and additional research grants.
Dr. Lydia English, the fellowship’s program director, says it was started after research showed that a “preponderance” of top performing minority students have traditionally opted to pursue law, medicine, dental, engineering and business professions instead of academic teaching and research. She adds that the mentoring by faculty members “helps these students understand the culture of higher education so that the mystique is removed.”
The Mellon fellowship has a similar focus to that of the federally supported Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which is to increase the number of underrepresented groups attending graduate school by exposing undergraduate students to graduate school work. McNair’s eligibility extends to low-income, first-generation college students of any racial or ethnic background as well as underrepresented minorities. This school year, 3,641 students are participating in the McNair program.
Early exposure to graduate school work and learning how faculty conduct research has helped lead dozens of Mellon and McNair students to become college professors.
“There’s a lot of socialization that has to be done to open up the profession, and that’s what the Mellon fellowship facilitates,” English says.
During his freshman and sophomore years at Dartmouth College, Dr. Ben Vinson had not considered the idea of becoming a history professor. Although Vinson had excelled in history courses during his first two years in college, he set his sights on becoming a lawyer.
“I was on track to go to law school,” he says. “It was about the bottom line. I was going for the cash.”
Yet, two of Vinson’s professors nominated the Black South Dakota native for a Mellon fellowship. Vinson got financial backing to travel to Venezuela to research African–inspired Christian religious ceremonies and a festival practiced by Black Venezuelans, which served as the basis for his undergraduate thesis.
Graduating summa cum laude in history and the classics at Dartmouth in 1992, Vinson says the Mellon fellowship persuaded him to seek graduate study in history. After completing a Ph.D. in Latin American history at Columbia University in 1998, he received an appointment as an assistant professor in the history department at Barnard College.
“[The fellowship] made the difference for me. It helped me realize that I wanted to do research,” Vinson says.
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