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Six students earn Mellon Mays grant for research

Not everyone reaches the end of a long day at Grinnell dreaming about a lifetime of academia. However, for those who anticipate becoming a college professor, the Mellon Mays Fellowship is a bit like the Holy Grail. The process of entering the realm of professors is a lot less daunting for six Grinnell Students,  who were named Mellon Mays Fellows in the spring of 2010. This year’s students are Sophie Fajardo ’12, Maria Higgs ’12, Isaiah Iboko ’12, Melissa Vasquez ’12, Nidia Bautista ’12, and Lizeth Gutierrez ’12.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program aims to increase both the number of minority students and the number of those dedicated to encouraging diversification in the professoriate. The program has met with remarkable success since its inception in 1988. Today, nearly 350 students have earned their Ph.D.s and another 3,000 are pursuing graduate degrees. There are a total of 81 colleges and universities participating in the Mellon Mays fellowship program. The program is designed to support students throughout the process of achieving tenure including undergraduate research, graduate school, dissertations and job applications.

Fellows receive a stipend that replaces work-study, essentially making their Mellon Mays Fellowship research their job. Students at Grinnell meet weekly with Professor Shanna Benjamin, English, the Faculty Coordinator. Benjamin is a “full circle Mellon,” or a recipient of the Mellon Fellowship who has been successful in gaining tenure as a professor and then mentoring new Mellon fellows. She also organizes the application process and conference attendance throughout the program.

Grinnell was invited to join the Mellon Mays Fellowship Program two years ago. Although the program is new to Grinnell, there are already ten students benefiting from its resources.

“It is important that we get buy-in from students and faculty, and that they see this as a program that is about graduate level research and not the stereotypical remediation that can be associated with minority programming,” Benjamin said.

Up to 20 students can participate in the program over a grant cycle of four years. In that time, a $500,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation is used to support the fellows.  Fellowships are awarded at the end of the student’s second year. Applications for the 2011 Mellon Mays Fellowships will be available following an informational meeting that is soon to be announced and will be due the second week after we return from winter break.

Once a student receives a fellowship, they are required to attend regional conferences, meetings with Faculty Mentors and meetings with the Faculty Coordinator as they work on a graduate-level research project.

S&B photographer Sophie Fajardo is a sociology major with a love of Disney movies—a combination that has served her well as she develops her research project for the fellowship program. Concentrating on “The Lion King” and “The Princess and the Frog,” she hopes to identify how “discrimination and prejudice continue to exist among new generations in America.”

“It’s about how Disney portrays race and sexuality in movies,” Fajardo said. She first became interested in sociology after her Introduction to Sociology class with Professor David Cook-Martin, Sociology, who is now her mentor for her research project.

“[The Mellon Mays Fellowship] seems like a really good thing. It’s a way of getting to do research and interact with other students,” Fajardo said. “It seems like a really exciting thing to me. I always try to find ways to talk about Disney in papers anyway, so this is a really exciting way to get to do that.”

Maria Higgs recently changed her major from biology to gender, women’s and sexuality studies (GWSS). Although her focus is still on health and medicine, she is using the GWSS major to expand her studies to more of a public health concentration. She is currently researching curanderas—traditional folk healers in Latin America.

“These are the people who would exist in communities before doctors were around,” she said. “I am looking at whether there can be a balance between stuff that has worked for centuries—between curanderas and modern medicine.” Her adviser is Professor Maria Tapias, Anthropology.

Higgs, who is especially interested in women’s health and how curanderas could help with fertility medicine, was amazed to discover how much the program had to offer.

“Once you become a fellow you learn all about all of these other opportunities,” she said. “Basically, it’s more than I ever expected.”

Isaiah Iboko is also a GWSS major. He was inspired in his first year by the applicability of the material he learned in his Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class.

“It was the first course that I’d taken that really touched on real issues that I’d seen in my own family, in my community,” he said.

He is studying perceptions of black men and black masculinity as demonstrated in American media from the 1950’s to 2010. He plans to compare Sambo, Nat Turner and Uncle Tom and analyze how their contributions to the common perceptions of black men have affected the ways in which black men are treated in the legal system.

Melissa Vasquez is double majoring in Spanish and sociology. Although she describes “accidentally” falling into these majors, both subjects provide insights into topics that she arrived at college wanting to study. Her ethnographic study of housekeepers in Bolivia is in its beginning stages, but she plans to analyze how the election of the first indigenous president has changed how indigenous women perceive themselves in the workforce.

“It’s kind of like how sociology meets anthropology meets Latin American studies,”” Vasquez said. She highlighted how helpful it is to have mentors that guide her through every aspect of the research process. Professor Michelle Nasser, Spanish, a Mellon Fellow herself, is Vasquez’s mentor throughout this process.

Nidia Bautista is double majoring in political science and GWSS. Her research on undocumented students in Los Angeles, her hometown, hits—literally—close to home. Her connections to her former high school have proven helpful as she attempts to identify what these invisible students can look forward to after their primary education. She has been influenced especially by the critical analysis that takes place in her GWSS courses, but the Mellon Mays program has given her the chance to see further possibilities for herself in higher education.

“For me the biggest benefit has been having the role models,” she said. “It is so hard to find women of color who are professors.” Her mentor is Rebecca Hamlin, Political Science.

Lizeth Gutierrez is double majoring in Spanish and sociology. She was originally attracted to both majors by literature with which she can identify. Her research project deals with the images projected upon Latina women by the media.

“I’m really passionate about looking at how identity negotiations work,” she said. “I look at popular culture and the way that specifically Latina women have been constructed.”

She is also focused on certain linguistic patterns that establish perceptions of Latina women. Her mentor is Professor Michelle Nasser. She hopes to become a professor of Latina Studies as a way to guide Latino students through the process of “negotiating their American life in American culture,” while recognizing and appreciating their Latin American ancestry.

The program has already supported many students, but the beauty of it is that it is designed to grow exponentially as Mellon Mays Fellows take positions at colleges and universities across the country. Isaiah Iboko looks forward to that final step in the process.

“One of the main reasons that I am still here … at Grinnell, is because I had professors I could go to,” Iboko said. “If I could do that for many other people, even aside from the research which is really incredible and exciting and fun, that could really be a job in itself, [one] that I could be really happy and fulfilled with.”

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