Entering the Academy

Program provides a path to a professorial career

By by Melissa Phipps

In the photo (from left): Alycia Gideon ’16, Anta Touray ’17, Rachel Kronberg ’17, Annaliese Grant ’17, Nadia Mbonde ’17, Prof. Monica Miller, Dina Asfaha ’16, Grace Ko ’16, Clarke Wheeler ’16, and graduate student Anna Hidalgo

How does one become a professor? This is a question that Monica Miller, now associate professor of English at Barnard, asked herself as a Dartmouth undergraduate. If one does not come from a long line of traditional academic professionals, is it possible to make it to the head of the class?    

For Miller, the answer was obviously yes. She had help from the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), a program designed to encourage diversity in academia by supporting the pursuit of PhD degrees by underrepresented students. Becoming an academic was not something Miller had thought about until a favorite English professor urged her to apply for the then new fellowship. “When I got in and met the other students, who were phenomenal and are now some of the best known academics in their fields,” Miller says, “it really inspired me.”

She has since received a PhD from Harvard University and built a distinguished body of research in African American literature and cultural studies. Her book Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity received the 2010 William Sanders Scarborough Prize for the best book in African American literature and culture. A Barnard faculty member since 2001, Miller earned the College’s Gladys Brooks Junior Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award in 2008.

Today, along with Michell Tollinchi-Michel, dean of academic enrichment and community initiatives, Miller champions diversity by coordinating and overseeing the MMUF program at Barnard.

Offered at Barnard since 1996, MMUF is a program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Students apply in their sophomore year and become fellows in their junior and senior years. The specifics of how the fellowship works vary from campus to campus, but at Barnard, fellows take on a research project. They meet bi-monthly with Miller and Tollinchi-Michel to discuss their research and share ideas to further one another’s work. A student will also work directly with a mentor, typically a professor in her field of interest.

Students also receive research stipends. “Many students do projects that require travel to other countries,” says Tollinchi-Michel. “The money can support travel to attend conferences, or pay for online conferences. It’s helping them really get involved in their research.” Another financial benefit comes in the form of student-loan help: once a fellow completes a PhD, MMUF helps pay off undergraduate loans up to $10,000.

Since an important element in increasing diversity is what MMUF calls the “cohort effect,” networking is strongly encouraged, and the group is kept small, with no more than 10 MMUF students on campus at a time. “It’s definitely a support system,” says Sujata Bajracharya ’15, a fellow who is pursuing a master’s degree in religion at Syracuse University. Regional and national MMUF events, like the successful 13th annual New York City regional conference held at Barnard in April, provide a great way for students to meet and share ideas. ( For more on the conference see the sidebar on page 70. ) Rebecca Deng ’15, whose field is Classics, echoes the importance of the community of scholars. “It’s really nice to have peers who know what you’re going through, and who have a passion for their study,” she says. “This program has helped me get to know other people at Barnard who, like me, want to go to graduate school.” 

Once fellows have entered graduate school, support from MMUF continues through workshops on subjects such as how to write a grant, how to put together a great research proposal, and how to write a dissertation. Additional support is provided as students prepare to leave graduate school, says Miller, and includes such assistance as how to search for a job, how to interview, how to negotiate for a position, and how to transition into the profession.

The benefits of diversity in higher education are well documented, with studies showing that exposure to many types of experiences, outlooks, and ideas has positive outcomes. Faculty from underrepresented groups enrich scholarship by offering fresh perspectives and raising new questions, according to a 1995 UCLA study. Studies also show that students who interact with racially and ethnically diverse peers demonstrate the greatest growth in motivation, intellectual engagement, and academic skills.

In seeking to increase diversity across the board in academia, MMUF has a broad reach. “Barnard is among 46 schools and consortia around the country, as well as three in South Africa, that participate in the MMUF program today,” says Laura Washington, director of communications at the Mellon foundation in New York. Mellon makes grants directly to each MMUF member institution or consortium to administer the program, and institutions offer in-kind support such as use of facilities and professors’ and administrators’ time.

It’s no easy task finding students who know they want to become professors and have a specific field of interest. “Young people don’t even know what they want to major in and we’re asking them to say they want to be professors in X discipline,” she says. Miller and Tollinchi-Michel ask professors and fellows to keep their eyes out for potential fellows. “The person we are interested in is someone who is knocking it out of the park … being creative,” Miller adds.

Interested students must also be involved in an eligible field of study. This is an important decision; a Mellon Mays Fellow is expected to stay in her chosen discipline, though she may switch to another field supported by Mellon Mays. They are expected to apply to graduate school within two or three years. “The commitment … is important,” says Tollinchi-Michel.

While the MMUF used to be available only to students of color, it was opened up to all students in the early 2000s; now any student interested in promoting diversity (for instance, a student pursuing gender studies) in their studies or who is underrepresented in a given field (such as a woman in physics) may qualify. “The program is designed to help different types of students,” Miller says. “Some people are bringing their histories and others are bringing different perspectives to things we know. [Others] are entirely committed to the idea that the academy needs to be a diverse place,” Miller says. 

This year, Barnard welcomed its 100th student into the program. The milestone is exciting, says Miller, but it’s not as important as what the number signifies: that 100 Barnard students have been strongly supported over the years toward academic careers, and more than 10 of those students have gone on to receive PhDs. The numbers grow exponentially over time. For the MMUF program as a whole, 4,649 fellows have been through the program, 574 have earned PhDs, and more than 300 of those individuals are on tenure track or hold tenured positions.

Even for those who don’t ultimately enter academia, being part of the MMUF program is unparalleled, and can help foster a lifetime of achievement. Miller says. “We give the students the opportunity and support them at a very high and rigorous level.”