Summer Program Opens Door to Graduate Studies for Minority Students

When summer student Joel Rhone, giving a talk on his research project analyzing Superman comics, showed a series of frames from the comic in his Powerpoint presentation, his peers murmured about whether he could legally use the material in his presentation.

University of Virginia English professor Alison Booth, observing the presentations, spoke up.

“Yes, you can. It’s for educational purposes,” she said.

That was just one small example of information a select group of six summer fellows learned about research as part of the Leadership Alliance Mellon Initiative, a new fellowship program at U.Va.

From Superman’s policing style to the portrayal of black women in children’s literature to the gaming community in Puerto Rico, the students are conducting original humanities research with an eye toward pursuing graduate study.

The eight-week program that brought the students to the Grounds is a national summer fellowship program devoted to increasing the number of demographically underrepresented students pursuing graduate studies, and perhaps careers in academia, in the humanities, education and social sciences. In this program – along with others here in the biomedical sciences and engineering – U.Va. contributes to this national effort.

For U.Va. administrators and faculty, one of the goals is also to introduce promising students from around the country to the Grounds, said Keisha John, director of diversity programs in the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. John came to U.Va. from Florida State University in January and set up the LAMI program for this summer.

“Faculty have been impressed with the students’ work and level of sophisticated conversation,” John said.

“As soon as I read their applications I knew they were an advanced, strong set of students,” said Booth, who is mentoring the students. “They come out of the intensive program with experience in presenting conference papers and writing an essay that could be revised as a writing sample [for graduate school applications]. Meanwhile, they meet faculty at a Research I university, take GRE preparation classes and encounter each others’ very different disciplines and experiences.”

Through the program, the group is also learning about technology resources at U.Va.’s Scholars’ Lab, working with Booth on her digital humanities project, “Collective Biographies of Women,” and meeting other professors for information sessions.

“I think it is extremely important to demystify digital work as well as the work of an academic library,” said Purdom Lindblad, who heads graduate programs at the Scholars’ Lab. “One of the benefits of using the Scholars’ Lab as a ‘home base’ is that our LAMI fellows could ask questions and share research with a variety of people with diverse scholarly interests and technical skills.”

Of the six fellows, two currently attend Howard University, and one each attends Morehouse College, Virginia State University, the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao and the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. 

A week before traveling to the Leadership Alliance’s national symposium in Stamford, Connecticut, they practiced their presentations for the lab staff and each other.

Kerwin Holmes Jr., a senior at Morehouse College, has researched “The Gospel of Slavery: A Study of Antebellum Southern American Christian Thought on African Slavery following the Second Great Awakening.”

Kayla Pinson’s project looks at “The Narrow Path of Justice: Amnesty and Memory in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”

“This presentation looks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa in terms of reconciliation and justice, then evaluates current social and political movements as a result of an incomplete transitional and healing process,” Pinson said. 

Malikia Johnson, a rising junior at Howard University, used the 2014 National Council of Social Studies list of multicultural children’s literature and the Common Core standards curriculum for her research project, “Missing Lives: Diversifying Representations of African-American Women in Elementary Texts.”

A sociology and Africana studies double major, she said, “My research focuses on … the effect this has on the cultural identity of young African-American girls ages 7 to 9.” Few books feature minority characters, Johnson said. The quality of the books varied, she said, describing a well-received story about Ella Fitzgerald that nonetheless describes the famous singer as a child who wasn’t pretty and was “raggedy.”

In Lilybeth Shields’ research, “The Gaming Effect: Why the Members of the Puerto Rican Gaming Community Acquire English More Easily than Their Peers,” the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao student is looking at youth who gather in community settings to play video games, board games or card games rather than sitting home alone playing on the computer.

Anthony Velázquez, from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, studied the relationship between how Puerto Ricans are perceived based on their physical features and how this might affect how they identify themselves. Although the cultural view is that all Puerto Ricans are part of one group, Velázquez said some people are perceived to not be Puerto Rican based on being too pale, and then have difficulty identifying as Puerto Rican.

“At the Scholars’ Lab, I learned about digital humanities, an area that was completely new to me,” he said. “In my final weeks of the program, I have started to create a digital component for my research. I see so many possibilities in this area.”

Several of the students said the fellowship program has led them to decide to pursue graduate studies.

“The program has impacted me in numerous ways, which include greater confidence in my presenting skills; knowledge on previous topics mentioned, such as grad school and careers; and even insight on if this is something I want to do for the rest of my life (which I have decided it is),” Johnson wrote in an email. “What I like the most about being at this institution is making connections with new professors and students who are all very willing to assist in any needs or questions I have in terms of my research or grad school.”

Shields said that working with Scholars’ Lab staff, she has learned “what the concept of digital humanities and digital scholarship involves. From the conversations with the faculty, I have learned about funding, career paths and advice on the process of entering a tenure-track career.”

Velázquez added, “This program has definitely molded me into a new person in terms of academics. It allowed me to have a taste of what grad school could possibly look like, and through this, helped me decide that it is the right fit for me. It also made me realize that when it comes to grad school, you have to study what you truly love or truly desire to acquire more knowledge about.”

The students met informally with Deborah McDowell, Alice Griffin Professor of English and director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies, to talk about graduate studies in general and at U.Va.

“To my delight, I was able to point out, actually without needing to oversell, that there are a number of faculty members here working directly in their own fields of interest, whether on textbooks, comic books, video games, literacy training or the history of religion,” she said. 

“You name it, and you’ll find a U.Va. faculty member who’s right there with you.”

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications