Lisette Gomez
This article was originally published on Poetinis.

Sara Silva and Dayquan Moeller are regulars in Whittier College’s Center for Advising and Academic Success (CAAS) student lounge. This little pocket of campus is one of the many spaces available for Whittier students to assemble throughout the school day. Silva and Moeller can often be seen sitting around the lounge’s big, bulky computers, or at one of the long, wooden tables. For them, as with other students, the lounge is a place to do homework. Other times, the lounge is a place where they can work on their research projects.

They are connected by more than a fondness for the CAAS lounge’s long tables. They are Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows (MMUF), and CAAS is often where Fellows can be found.  Early on a cloudy Wednesday morning, I was surfing on my laptop when Silva opened the glass entry door into the lounge. I waved her over, and we started talking. Shortly after, we were joined by Abigail Sanchez, a third-year MMUF and Opinions Editor for the QC. All are undertaking unique intellectual pursuits through the opportunities the MMUF program provides.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship is a program with the mission “to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.” I, along with several other students, am currently in the Whittier College branch of the Mellon Mays program. But what are undergraduate research fellowships? My cohort-mate, alumna Yasmin Mendoza, gave a basic definition of a fellowship: “A fellowship program is usually a paid internship where you can deepen your understanding of the field you are interested in.”

According to a report made by the Higher Education Academy, there are many forms of study that can be qualified as “research.” Research can be creative art and design. It can be projects that focus on literature, science, or a mix of disciplines, which is known as interdisciplinary research. In MMUF, students each have their own niche.

For example, Mendoza double majored in English and Theater, with an emphasis in performance. Her research project was on censorship in 20th and 21st century American literature. Meanwhile, Argo Sandoval, another fourth-year MMUF, is a Philosophy major with a gender studies minor. Their research focuses on queer and trans studies. They cite their inspiration as decolonial feminist philosophy of “Argentinian, tango dancing, tortillera Maria Lugones.” As a Film Production major within the Whittier College Scholars Program (WSP), Keidan Chavez is studying minorities in film — specifically Latinos in blockbuster movies historically featuring white casts or main characters.

The younger Mellons are the third-year students Dayquan Moeller, Sara Silva, and Abigail Sanchez. They major in Social Theater (within WSP), Philosophy, and History, respectively. Moeller’s project focuses on what he calls site-specific theater in Los Angeles. Silva investigates online werewolf fanfiction through a branch of academic study called ecofeminism. Sanchez researches the political impact of Imperial women in the Roman Empire.

Why MMUF?

On that Wednesday morning, as we all sat around the long table, Silva, Sanchez, and I chatted about homework, classes, and our research workloads. As the clock on the wall hit 10:00 a.m., Silva swiftly stood up and said her goodbyes as she left for her next class. Sanchez then sat down, and we started talking.

When I asked her why she applied for an MMUF, she sat up straight to answer: “I guess my goal for applying to this program was basically to get the resources and the support to be able to pursue a PhD degree because that wasn’t something I started on before I applied.” She leaned back in her chair, and then went on. “And also [to] have the experience to conduct research so that, when I applied to grad school, I could say, ‘here, I have some experience with that.’”

That experience was important to many of the Mellon students who sat with me at the CAAS table. Chavez viewed MMUF as a good work opportunity. For Sandoval, the program was an experience they could potentially list in their future graduate school applications.

Moeller also talked about applying, simply for the sake of conducting research. We had a chance to talk a few days later — also at CAAS — and he explained that he applied to MMUF because the fellowship was an opportunity to pursue his academic passions with financial and academic support.

Support in Mellon Mays

Kaiden Chavez and I had a chance to talk one late afternoon, when the sky was turning orange and students were sprawled on CAAS’s couches. Chavez reflected on some of the benefits he has gotten through his work with Mellon Mays. “We get a stipend [ . . . ] to help fund our projects, and it has gone towards me buying equipment that I would need — not only for this specific fellowship, but also outside of that,” he said.

This seemed to resonate with Sanchez, who also highlighted another benefit of MMUF: the academic support.

“[The coordinators] also provide me [with] academic support and [ . . . ] encourage me on my research,” she said. “I also get the support of my peers within the program            [ . . . ] to help encourage me to continue with my research. And, of course, I also have the support of my mentor to guide me [through] how I can do my research properly.”

Dr. Shannon Stanton Agbotse of Whittier College’s Department of Education and Child Development, who is one of the program’s coordinators, explains that the MMUF mentorship does not end when the student graduates. “We have fellows who started as an undergrad — and, yes, they received their PhD, and they work, and they have a faculty job,” said Dr. Stanton Agbotse. “Then, we have deans and presidents, and Mellon Mays supports you through the entire process. So, after you graduate from Whittier and you get into a graduate program, there’s a different level of support that comes in. [ . . . ] Then, when you’re writing your dissertation, there’s another level of support that comes in. [It is] not only monetary support, but a community of people who will get alongside you and write with you, encourage you.”

Financial support, mentorship, connections; all of these are components of Mellon Mays — hence why Silva calls it “a scholarship-job thing.” But how does a typical student access such an opportunity?

The Application Process

Whittier College’s website provides information for students interested in applying to MMUF and other fellowships. In purple, black, and white, there is a list of criteria, application essay prompts, and other resources listed. Additionally, pages on past cohorts and their research are also available on the website.

That may sound daunting, but it’s pretty manageable. “The application process for MMUF consisted of filling out an application with basic information about your research interests, a project proposal, mock statement of purpose, and personal statement,” explained Sandoval. “If this application is accepted, the potential fellow then moves forward to the interview.”

Not every student who applies gets into the Mellon Fellowship. As he sat right across from me, Chavez talked about his own experience: “I remember I didn’t get in the first time I applied. I think [it was] just based [on] the lack of focus in my project. Then, the second time, I did get in, even though I didn’t think I was going to get in.”

Dr. Stanton Agbotse said that presentation is important when it comes to the application process. “When you do apply, put your best foot forward. So review that application — get someone to take a second look at it. You don’t want to submit something that has a lot of grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, things that are easily fixed if you just took a second read or have someone [else] look at it.”

She went on to emphasize that the program should be thought of as “a class and a half.” Successful applicants should expect a lot of reading and writing and building the analytical skills of budding academics.

Life as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow is not particularly easy. This ‘class and a half’ comes with late nights, heavy reading, and a significant amount of writing. Even with all the benefits and opportunities, the program’s students are expected to put in a lot of work.

The orange and pink rays of sunset filled CAAS through the lounge’s glass windows as Sanchez continued speaking with me, “There are a lot of great resources, a lot of great support that comes with these kinds of fellowships. But, at the same time, you also have to put in the work.” But, she stressed, don’t let that stop you. “Just try,” she said. “even if you don’t think you’re going into grad school or becoming a teacher, it might be worth it.”

Moeller said that, regardless of what one might end up pursuing, the confidence building will pay off. “Don’t undersell yourself. It gets a little overwhelming sometimes, and you will make mistakes sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to be where you are,” he said.

Featured Image: Dafne Avila / Quaker Campus

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