For nearly 18 years, the Office of Special Academic Programs at the College has been administering both the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) and the Allison Davis Research Fellowship (ADRF). These fellowships, designed to support underrepresented minority students pursuing doctorates, aim to address the lack of diversity in academia. Earlier this semester the MMUF was awarded to MarChè Daughtry ’19, Merudjina Normil ’19, Isabel Peña ’19, Gabriel Silva Collins ’19 and Valeria Sosa Garnica ’19. Meanwhile, the ADRF was awarded to Mikhayla Armstrong ’19, Arkey Barnett ’19, Arno Cai ’19, Neftaly Lara ’19 and Bethel Shekour ’19.
The Mellon Mays Foundation was founded in 1988 and is named after Benjamin E. Mays, a prominent civil rights activist and educator. The organization, created with the desire to diversify the upper echelons of academia, prepares students for enrollment in doctorate programs in the humanities or social sciences. This is done through structured programming and faculty mentoring as well as term and summer stipends for research activities. The College began receiving grants from the foundation in 1989 and today is one of 40 institutions that are member campuses.
In 1999, the College created the ADRF to run alongside the MMUF. Previously known as the Williams College Undergraduate Research Fellowship, the fellowship was renamed to commemorate black scholar W. Allison Davis ’24. Similar to the MMUF, this fellowship strives to increase diversity in higher education by supporting promising students as they explore their intellectual interests. Unlike the MMUF, however, ADRF fellows are able to pursue research in all fields of study including the sciences.
Currently, the doctorate completion rate 10 years after a student enrolls in a program hovers around 50 percent. When factoring in demographic characteristics such as race and citizenship, the 10-year completion rate exhibits noticeable decreases.
“Nationally, there is a high dropout rate in Ph.D. programs and I think that it happens because students aren’t necessarily prepared,” Molly Magavern, director of special academic programs, said. “They may not know how to do that kind of sustained research required, or they’re not totally informed about what it’s like.”
The MMUF and ADRF seek to tackle this salient issue by providing fellows with a supportive environment. Fellows pick up a variety of skills as they participate in fieldwork and learn how to maintain their stamina when undertaking long-term projects. Magavern finds that Mellon Mays and Allison Davis Research fellows “have a really strong sense of what they’re getting into and are able to develop the habits you need to strive in graduate school.”
Preparation for graduate school is not the only perk, however. From researching the effects of North Korean propaganda to examining gentrification in Los Angeles, Mellon Mays and Allison Davis Research Fellows are able to translate their passions into cutting-edge research projects.
“The biggest thing is that they have time to explore their own intellectual interests and move around amongst different topics in their field to figure out where they want to land,” Magavern said. “They kind of know what questions they want to ask in pursuing graduate school. We’ve had projects in almost all fields, and really all over the map.”
For some such as Merudjina Normil ’19, a Mellon Mays fellow, the freedom to research topics she was passionate about was an offer hard to turn down.
“I saw it as an opportunity to keep me at the College because I was considering not being here. It’s a great way for me to go outside of the Williams Bubble and create my own kind of personal project — which isn’t often available to me,” Normil said. “Personally, I’m really interested in the differences between the black feminist filmmaker and the black woman filmmaker. As a Mellon Mays fellow, I’ll be able to conduct research in understanding how these filmmakers are creating space for themselves and combatting the white male gaze.”
Mellon Mays and Allison Davis Research Fellows also have the opportunity to learn from one another. Because the programs run side-by-side, fellows are able to support each other as their projects evolve and serve as sources of inspiration. This relationship is fostered through bimonthly meetings throughout the school year and a six-week summer session following the completion of their sophomore year.
“One of the real strengths of the program is the way it allows students to come together in an intellectual community,” Magavern said. “Even though they are all studying different topics, they are going through different processes and kind of supporting each other and helping each other. That has been really powerful and a highlight of the program for students.”
Magavern strongly encourages a broad range of candidates at the College to consider the merits of the program for them. “As long as it’s something that you’re strongly considering and as long as you want to participate in all the pieces of the program, what we’re going to spend our time doing is preparing you for graduate school,” Magavern said. “If this appeals to you and you are strongly considering an academic career then go ahead and apply. By being accepted into the fellowship you’re committing to taking that seriously but you’re not committing to any particular outcome.”