Going Full Circle with Mellon Mays

Besenia Rodriguez (left) with Mellon Mays Fellows at Graduation, 2015. Photo courtesy of Brown University.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program was established in 1988 by William G. Bowen, the then president of the Foundation, and Mellon program associate Henry Drewry, with the goal of increasing diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.  As we reflect on just over a quarter-century of MMUF accomplishments, one compelling story rarely told involves twelve active MMUF campus coordinators, who themselves had been MMUF fellows as undergraduates.  These are individuals who were part of the program as young students, went on to earn PhDs, landed positions in the academy at colleges and universities that host MMUF programs, and eventually became program leaders—now helping to usher in the newest generations of MMUF fellows who seek to make a mark in academia.

When Besenia Rodriguez began her studies as an undergraduate at Brown University, the MMUF program was less than a decade old and its first cohorts were just beginning to complete their PhD programs.  Dean Rodriguez, who completed her PhD program as a Mellon Fellow, has come full-circle as she finishes her sixth year coordinating the program at her alma mater.

Born in the South Bronx, Rodriguez was the first in her family from the Dominican Republic to attend college.  She, like many other first-year students, was unsure of her professional path.  When a senior Mellon fellow encouraged her to look into the program, she had not even declared an undergraduate major, let alone considered pursuing a PhD.

“I really did not enter college with a strong professional orientation,” Rodriguez said.  “I was juggling work-study jobs and knew very little about fellowships that could provide financial support.”

As financial matters motivated Rodriguez to follow up on her friend’s suggestion, she continued to learn about the MMUF program’s vision of transforming the academy, and was inspired to think more expansively about her potential.  “I remember being blown away that I could ostensibly be paid to read and think and learn,” she said. 

The MMUF program teaches advanced research skills and mentors students in best practices in developing scholarship, but Rodriguez explains that, beyond that training, the program builds confidence in its fellows that they have a place in academia.  “MMUF requires fellows to conduct research under the guidance of a faculty mentor,” she said, “And offers guest lectures and workshops run by graduate students and faculty, so I was able to get to know scholars and begin to see myself as someone who could one day produce new knowledge.”

After Rodriguez earned her BA from Brown, she went on to earn her MA and PhD in African-American and American Studies from Yale University.  Before accepting the deanship at Brown in 2009, she worked as Director of Student Services at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and as an MMUF program administrator at Yale and at Queens College-CUNY. 

With her considerable experience working with students, Rodriguez is witness to shifting tides within the academy, while also keenly aware of the work yet to accomplish.  “Today’s MMUF students bring greater sophistication and understanding of their respective disciplines,” she said.  “But I also see a lot of pain and anxiety.  These students struggle, as we did, to construct a professional path that contributes to social justice while also advancing knowledge across a range of disciplines.  And they do so while constantly reminded of the stakes of a system of higher education that does not yet look like the world around it.”

Bolstered by coalition-building and broader visibility, students from historically underrepresented communities are increasingly calling out the effects of an imbalanced system.  Rodriguez stresses that skirmishes among students and institutional leaders highlight the continued relevance of MMUF’s mission while reflecting the tension between the slow process of diversifying the nation’s faculty and immediate needs.

“Senior administrators across the country are grappling with the fact that their faculties are not as diverse as their undergraduate student bodies,” she said, “a fact that only underscores the great need for MMUF to continue to support undergraduates, graduate students, untenured faculty, and those not yet on the tenure track.”

The pressing challenges of the 21st century demand intellectually and experientially diverse problem-solvers.  In its 27th year, with more than 600 PhDs awarded and 700 more in the pipeline, the Mellon Mays program remains a flagship initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a manifestation of its belief that diversity in the academy improves learning opportunities for all students, and offers them better preparation for our democratic society and workforce.