• Becoming an Engaged Scholar

    Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship demystifies the graduate school process

By Nicola Brown
Photo by Jean Lachat
September 3, 2014

Zoё Smith stated that for her thesis, she will be watching TV and reading comic books. She quickly clarified for the room full of people and the four other Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows on her panel that this meant she will be conducting scholarly research on the transmedia portrayal of sexual violence and femininity in The Walking Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“I initially went in as somebody just getting into comic reading and noticing that there was this really high rate of sexual violence in everything that I read and wondering why is this, is this something that I really can find everywhere?” Smith said. “What place does sexual violence have in this genre and why might that be, in comparison to other mediums?”

In her words, her research will include analysis of the forms of comics and television, the study of gender in pop culture, and the field of transmedia narratology.

The other students on the panel presented proposals on the Black Feminism Movement in The Bluest Eye, representations of black women in reality TV, depression among queer Tumblr users of color, and what it means to be black in Percival Everett’s Erasure.

These MMUF scholars are committed to bringing new perspectives that include race and minority issues to light in their scholarship. The research they are currently conducting for their senior thesis projects, and plan to continue as doctoral students, is just one way they hope to begin influencing the academy from within. For Smith, a rising third year in the college majoring in English, this means being a catalyst by becoming an engaged scholar.

This term sparks a lot of conversation amongst the roughly forty MMUF students here this summer. They have come to campus from a variety of institutions for the Summer Research Training Program, which is under the auspices of the Office of the Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues, to hone the skills needed to be such a scholar. As Smith put it, the program emphasizes comprehensive research over the type of analysis she has employed previously. This motivated her to dig deeper into her ideas about how sexual violence is portrayed differently in comics and television.

“I’m going to be drawing on a lot of different fields of scholarship in order to perform my research,” she said. “If you look and try to find research done specifically on sexual violence in comics, you’ll find a lot of commentary on the internet, but not necessarily in the academic sphere.”

MMUF is an international initiative to assist and encourage students to become scholars and change the academy. Any second-year student -- of either an underrepresented minority background, or who can demonstrate a commitment to working toward ending racial disparities and promoting cross-cultural understanding -- is eligible to apply. It aims to demystify the process of doing research and applying to grad school in an effort to change from within how minority and race issues are treated in the academy.  Though SRTP allows for more focus and training during the summer, the UChicago MMUF program is also run out of the College during the academic year, creating an environment and community of research and learning year round.

MMUF programming director and adviser in the College, Elise LaRose pointed out that in a society where racism is often passively accepted as a part of everyday life, lawyers, doctors, activists, and other professionals play an important role in bringing about equality, as do educators and scholars. Because MMUF prepares aspiring scholars who will go on to pursue careers as researchers and teachers of others, they must be well prepared to help their students understand the histories of social and economic disadvantage that some communities have faced for generations. Without this, she said, we cannot understand how things have become what they are today. MMUF scholars from past years now hold positions at numerous institutions in the U.S. and around the world, changing the classroom and campus conversations through their roles, and ultimately influencing society as well.

MMUF as a whole serves to create cohorts of like-minded individuals, serious and driven scholars, who support each other through the process of preparing for and applying to doctorate programs. SRTP at UChicago has an added benefit – it is well-known for exposing scholars to the ins and outs of doing research. In fact, many of the programs at the other MMUF schools require their students to spend one summer in Chicago.

“It’s a really great program for just learning how to do research. It teaches you in a way that other programs don’t.” 
— Taylor Enoch-Stevens, Dartmouth College

For Vincente Perez, a rising third year in the college majoring in Anthropology and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, MMUF was the logical step towards becoming both an activist and a scholar. Perez is a member of the Vice President’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, the mind behind last year’s Identity Week, a poet in Catcher in the Rhyme who slams about some of the challenges he faces, and, recently, a blogger about race issues.

MMUF gave him the opportunity to be a part of a community of activist scholars from around the country, which introduced him to avenues of thought he had never considered before. It also taught him to better appreciate UChicago’s unique resources, particularly the faculty. He met Lisa Simeone, an instructor for the program as well as a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at UChicago. Simeone is someone Perez likely would not have met otherwise, he said, but because of this program, they have become life-long friends. The program allowed ample time for students to meet one-on-one with advanced graduate students and faculty, and Perez and Simeone spent much of their early meetings getting to know one another and coming to understand why they were both interested in their topic of scholarship.

“She immediately reassured me that it was possible to be both an activist and a scholar in order to bridge the gap between academia and the real world.” 
— Vincente Perez, third year

Perez’s research proposal revolves around what he has experienced as a student of color at an elite university. He came to realize that while programs like MMUF are great for talented students of color who have already made it into college, they fail to address the structural inequalities that keep so many such students from going to college in the first place.  His research aims “to challenge whether diversity is doing the work it claims to be doing for students of color, especially black students.”

MMUF-SRTP was an invaluable experience for the students who participated, giving them a space to learn together as engaged scholars.

“It’s the first time I’ve never felt like a racial minority amongst my peers,” said Courtney Brown of Rice University, to the general agreement of her peers. “It helped me very much to reaffirm my commitment to broadening the diversity within academia.”