What It's Like to Graduate—and Look Ahead to a PhD or Master's—During a Pandemic

Amid an ongoing global pandemic, young humanities scholars reflect on the past and look ahead to the future.

Although ceremonies may have been socially distanced or virtual and celebrations curtailed, graduation day 2021 was still an occasion for young scholars around the world to take pride in their achievements and look to the future. For many graduates of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, which encourages careers in the professoriate, the future means continuing their education in advanced degree programs in the humanities.  

As the pandemic begins to recede, there is cause for optimism for these graduates, but also an understanding that they will continue to face major challenges, from reshaped workforces to deep-rooted racial injustices and the cataclysmic effects of climate change.  

We reached out to recent MMUF graduates in the US and South Africa and asked them to share their stories and reflections from an extraordinary year. Meet a few of the inspiring future humanities scholars from the class of 2021:  

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Joshua Acosta
California State University, Long Beach
Major: History

Fall 2021: Univeristy of California at Berkeley, PhD, Ethnic Studies

When you think about your academic journey over the last two years, what makes you most proud?
I am most proud of being the first in my family to have the opportunity to begin a doctoral program. While this is a personal achievement, I see it as a moment of pride for my family as well. Reclaiming the challenges of my grandparents’ immigrant journey here, I take great pride that, in three generations, I am able to affirm the possibilities made by their sacrifice and courage. Being able to become a historian and scholar so that I can make visible stories that they experienced and for others like them makes me feel invigorated.

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Marie Tano
Pomona College
Major: Cognitive Science/Linguistics

Fall 2021: Stanford University, PhD, Linguistics

How have you surprised yourself while in college?
At the beginning of my college career, I was so enamored by my peers. I was not as articulate as they were or as confident in my own thoughts. I have been able to stop regarding upperclassmen with envy and have begun to see them as resources and sources of inspiration. I am no longer afraid to be wrong in class discussions. I feel wholly independent now, as a human being.

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Otshepeng Lelaka
Wits University
Major: Philosophy

Fall 2021: Wits University, Honors Degree, Philosophy

What has been one of your greatest challenges this year?
Since the day I set foot on campus, I have been dreaming of my graduation party. I looked forward to seeing my neighborhood filled with people dancing and celebrating. I could hear the ululations, praise poetry, and the words of “Ntate Nthekele Sanamarena” (a traditional graduation song whose words literally translate to “father buy me a graduation gown”) echoing through my entire street. It is unfortunate that I will now have to wait for future graduations to see this dream fulfilled.

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Aida Revilla
University of New Mexico
Major: Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts

Fall 2021: The University of Chicago, MA, Social Sciences

Coming out of the past year, what do you hope the world better appreciates or understands moving forward?
The importance of the work that Black, Brown, and Indigenous academics are doing. That we don't want people to fix things for us, we want to have the power to fix them for ourselves. Black, Brown, and Indigenous academics are leading conversations around social justice in the classroom, in politics, and in the real world. We have seen the power we hold to shape the world around us when we engage in critical dialogue, accountability, and activism.

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Tania Nasrollahi
University of California at Los Angeles
Majors: Sociology, Anthropology

Fall 2021: Indiana University Bloomington, PhD, Sociology

How do you see the Humanities as important to our collective future? 
Our society has become increasingly technological and concerned with identifying the “objective”—as if there is always a single truth that fits all cases. The humanities seek to answer truths that are harder to grasp, and as a result, are more rewarding to know. Maybe it’s time to say: We have computers. We have calculators. What we really are lacking are empaths and freethinkers.