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Mellon Makes its Mark

Mellon Makes its Mark

Over the past 13 years, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has invested $50 million in doctoral programs. Their investment is now paying off as the program becomes one of the premier pipelines for producing minority doctorates.
By Ronald Roach

Sheldon Lyke had long harbored ambivalence about getting a doctorate to become a professor. His indecision was a result of his uncertainty about whether academic life suited his temperament. Though the Princeton University graduate got into graduate programs in sociology as well as law school, Lyke opted to earn a law degree at Northwestern University.
Nonetheless, the Chicago native credits the influence of the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program for bringing him around to graduate school. Having participated in the Mellon program at Princeton, Lyke realized that he felt far more fulfilled as a research scholar than in a law firm. Though admitting his first two years in a graduate program at the University of Chicago has been a rough ride for him, Lyke declares he has made the right choice and wants to teach law and sociology in the
“I’m glad I’m doing this,” he says.
On a balmy, sunny weekend last month on the bucolic campus of Duke University, Lyke was among 160 young scholars assembled at a meeting known to its previous participants as equal parts family reunion and academic conference. The North Carolina campus provided a scenic backdrop for the annual conference of participants in the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship program, one of the premier doctoral pipeline programs for minority students in the United States.
The annual conference represents one of the signature highlights of the 13-year-old program that has helped produce 60 doctoral recipients and has helped steer more than 500 current Black, American Indian and Latino students into doctoral programs. For three days each June, young scholars who have completed the undergraduate portion of the program gather together at a host campus to network, present papers, socialize and meet prominent senior scholars.
Since the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched the MMUF, it’s estimated that the New York City-based foundation has invested more than $50 million in the program, according to Mellon officials. “It’s been a long-term investment, and it’s beginning to pay off,” says Dr. Lydia English, Mellon Foundation program officer and director for the MMUF program.
This past June, Mellon officials and program staff members from the Social Science Research Council convened the 10th annual conference, which attracted the 160 former undergraduate fellows, the largest gathering ever for the event. While the bulk of the attendees represented new college graduates and current graduate students, a handful of attendees were recent doctoral recipients either entering the academic job market or working as junior faculty members. Academic luminaries, including Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Houston Baker and Dr. Trudier Harris, also participated in the Duke conference.
“I spoke at the first conference, and it’s good to see that the numbers have increased,” Franklin notes.   
Program officials say the Mellon program is notable among doctoral pipeline efforts because it places a central emphasis on providing the undergraduate fellows a high-quality research experience and matching them with faculty mentors.
“Mellon foundation officials recognized the pivotal experience for minority students deciding on graduate school was getting them research experience,” says Dr. Jacqueline Looney, a former Mellon program officer of the MMUF program and the current associate vice-provost for academic diversity at Duke University.

Dr. Ben Vinson counts his participation as a Mellon fellow as a key building block in the making of his career as a history professor. Considered one of the stars among the Mellon fellows cohort, Vinson, who is African American, speaks glowingly of the Mellon experience, which began when he was an undergraduate history and classics major at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
“When it came time to decide on either going to law school or graduate school, I realized I really loved history and research. I didn’t have the same passion for law,” Vinson says of the decisive value the Mellon undergraduate research experience held for him.
Vinson has just completed his third year of teaching Latin American history as an assistant professor at Barnard College in New York City, his first teaching job after earning a doctorate in history from Columbia University. This summer marks the publication of his first book, Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free Colored Militia in Mexico, a historical study of racial identity formation among Blacks in Mexico during its colonial history. Stanford University Press is the publisher of Vinson’s book.
While his undergraduate proficiency in the classics and history, Spanish language fluency and years spent living abroad in a military family gave Vinson solid academic grounding and helped him cultivate a cosmopolitan outlook, he credits the Mellon affiliation for providing him with a source of mentors, friends and with a forum for informal networking.
“I’ve been coming to the annual conferences for nine years. And it’s like no other academic event I’ve ever encountered,” he says. “You’re building important friendships and making important professional contacts. You get to see how the academy works in a such a way that’s psychologically refreshing.”
Other fellows describe the Mellon experience as one that packages the research background, academic life exposure, informal networking and mentoring opportunities in a meaningful way. 
Chiyuma Elliot, a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Texas-Austin, says participation in the Mellon program has helped connect her with key academic mentors as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Elliot, whose interest in research emerged while she was still a high school student in Eugene, Ore., was paired with the late Dr. Lora Romero at Stanford University upon becoming a Mellon fellow. Romero helped Elliot navigate a religious topic ideally suited to interdisciplinary analysis and narrow the research in order to apply literary analysis to the subject. The project, which exposed the Stanford University graduate to
interdisciplinary research analysis, ultimately helped steer Elliot to a doctoral program in
American studies, where she focuses on American rural history between the World Wars.
“I hope that non-American studies departments will be as interested in looking at me (as a professor) as American studies departments. I’m interested in women’s studies, history programs and English programs. Those would be my strongest departmental prospects,” Elliot says.

A number of graduate students who were Mellon undergraduate fellows credit the program with helping them burnish their undergraduate credentials and put their graduate school careers firmly on track.
Jill Toliver, a doctoral candidate in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says the Mellon undergraduate fellowship enabled her to use the research project she completed on the work of Sonia Sanchez’s poetry as the basis of her senior thesis at Spelman College.
“I was way ahead of my classmates on doing research for the senior thesis,” she says.
David Cort, who is completing a master’s degree in sociology from George Washington University in Washington this summer, says being a Mellon fellow put him in touch with advisers who counseled him on making a smooth transition from an undergraduate counseling psychology major at Oakwood College in Alabama to a graduate sociology student in demographic studies. Rather than jumping directly into a doctoral program in demography at a sociology department, Cort instead pursued a master’s degree. This fall, he will enroll in a demography doctoral program in the sociology department at the University of California-Los Angeles.
“I knew that going to a master’s program would make me more competitive in getting into a doctoral program. People in demography (at the undergraduate level) are coached very well before they get to the graduate programs. Getting the master’s at George Washington University has allowed me to get into a top program,” Cort says,
noting that the Mellon research project at Oakwood proved to be a
critical element of his undergraduate experience. 

Currently, 34 predominantly White colleges and universities and the 39 member schools of the United Negro College Fund participate in the program, which supports graduate study in fields where minorities are most underrepresented. Program officials say nearly 2,000 students since 1988 have been chosen as Mellon fellows.
For fellows who choose the graduate school route in a designated field, the Mellon foundation provides support in the form of research grants, undergraduate loan forgiveness assistance, and eligibility to participate in the annual conference and other Mellon events.
This year’s conference showcased the growth of the program over the past 13 years and individual success stories of its early participants, several of whom are now recent doctoral recipients beginning their first jobs. Signs of the program’s maturity are becoming highly evident as informal discussions about the recent doctorates are focusing on their forthcoming books and strategies for gaining academic tenure. The quality of the graduate and recent doctoral work by Mellon fellows is also getting noticed by senior scholars.
“These young scholars are thinking in ways that wasn’t being done 20 and 30 years ago,” says Dr. Trudier Harris. 

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