Mellon Mays Program Mentors Minority Students

Diane Anderson

Exploring topics ranging from the social impact of black stand-up comedy to genocide resistance in Rwanda, seven students will get the opportunity to conduct graduate-level research through the 2011-12 Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program.

A national program, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship strives to increase the minority presence on college and university faculties by encouraging underrepresented undergraduate students to pursue Ph.D.s in fields that lack diversity. USC’s fellowship program is a partnership between USC Dornsife, the Office of the Provost and the Division of Student Affairs.

“The goal is to not only help these students with their research, but also to provide assistance with workshops and conferences while they are undergraduates and in graduate school,” said Martha Enciso, assistant director of Academic Recognition Programs and head of the USC Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program. “It’s like a preparation program to become faculty.”

As they decode hours of digital tapes, search library archives and conduct hundreds of phone interviews, the selected students are already delving into the research process thanks to a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship summer stipend. Fellows also receive fall and spring stipends in addition to formal faculty mentorship.

“I had been planning to do research, and Mellon Mays made it possible and provided resources that are just amazing,” said senior Jayme Tsutsuse, who will be traveling to Rwanda to conduct interviews about genocide resistance with support from her faculty mentors and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. “For me, research is not so much about undoing misconceptions, but really finding a way to understand things that are so outside of what I have experienced in my life.”

Taking a political science course about terrorism and genocide sparked Tsutsuse’s interest in the subject. “I wanted to learn about people’s stories — people who fought back against what the majority was partaking in,” she said.

Stephen Finlay, associate professor of philosophy in USC Dornsife and a mentor to Tsutsuse, called her project “a perfect fit for the fellowship program.” He added, “I’m very impressed by how it combines abstract theory and empirical research with matters of direct, concrete importance.”

Senior Rikiesha Pierce’s research will take an entirely different turn. This summer, she’ll be combing through a recorded archive of stand-up comedy and related interviews compiled by her mentor Lanita Jacobs, associate professor of anthropology in USC Dornsife. Pierce also plans to take part in a weeklong performance retreat led by Liesel Reinhart, head of the production company Speak Theater Arts.

“Her enthusiasm for this subject is as contagious as it is generative for my own research on notions of racial authenticity in black stand-up comedy,” Jacobs said. “I can’t wait to see what she discovers — both about the craft of stand-up and her extraordinary self.”

Pierce, who excelled academically at Mt. San Antonio College and lived out of her car for a time before transferring to USC, plans to pursue her Ph.D. in performing arts studies and hopes to use “comedy as a tool for social change.”

“What I hope to find is some kind of prescription comedians are giving to their audiences in terms of social critique and commentary, and what they perceive as the means of combating the ills of society,” said Pierce, who is majoring in sociology in USC Dornsife.

Senior Evelyn Larios has already assisted her mentor Veronica Terriquez, assistant professor of sociology in USC Dornsife, on several research projects including a community development project with the Second Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, a look at union- and non-union parent involvement in L.A. County schools, and a study of access to post-secondary education.

A course in research methods inspired her to do an independent project on the planning and implementation of the Los Angeles May Day marches, which sparked her interest in social movements.

“I am very research-oriented,” said Larios, who heard about the Mellon Mays program through her involvement as a transfer student in the USC SCholars Program. “[Former SCholars director] K.C. Mmeje provided great mentorship. He saw that I was interested in research and encouraged me to apply.”

Though she is still debating about which topic — social movements or labor unions — to pursue for her Mellon Mays project, Larios, a double major in sociology and policy, planning and development, and a McNair Scholar, plans to spend the summer collecting data and finalizing her project.

“Evelyn has an outstanding sociological imagination,” Terriquez said. “She understands research and knows how to ask questions and use data to answer those questions.”

Other members of the cohort include Charnan Williams, who is researching the history of Leimert Park; Evelyn Sanchez, who is looking at immigration from an LGBT perspective; Jennifer Escobar, who is exploring border issues and religious groups; and Nelly Chavez, who is examining folklore and religion in southern Mexico.

“We look for students who seem to have an edge to their research and be true scholars in the making — students who will actually make a difference in their professions,” said George Sanchez, vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives in USC Dornsife, and mentor to Williams and Evelyn Sanchez.

Once students complete their research and are accepted into graduate programs, whether at USC or other Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship universities, they continue to be supported and funded by the program.

“Once selected,” said Enciso, “students are in it for life.”