A Q&A with Current Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows

January 23, 2023

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program at UC Berkeley fosters the academic development of undergraduate students with exceptional promise in the humanities or social sciences and potential for careers that will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in the academy.

MMUF supports Fellows by providing mentorship and the environment and resources to pursue their research and prepare for graduate school and faculty careers. Since the program’s inception in 2008, Berkeley MMUF Fellows have been accepted into graduate programs at Cambridge University (UK), University of Chicago, New York University, Purdue University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California.

Last semester, the UC Berkeley Division of Arts & Humanities was proud to host the annual Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Western Regional Conference in partnership with the University of New Mexico. Opened by Sara Guyer, Dean of the Division of Arts & Humanities, the conference offered an opportunity for MMUF cohorts to build community and share feedback on scholarship.

As the application cycle for the 2023-24 cohort opens, we spoke with two current Fellows and A&H majors about their experiences in MMUF.

MMUF students Sofia Celeste Zaragoza (left) and Fabiola Vazquez (right)

Sofia Celeste Zaragoza was born and raised in Los Angeles, Southern California. She is a senior transfer student from Los Angeles Pierce College and an English major with a focus on gender dynamics and social constructs. Her research project is Julia Kristeva’s “Women’s Time”, Feminine Identity, Development and Death in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. After graduation, Sofia plans to pursue a PhD in English and hopes to eventually teach at a 4-year University or Community College and play a role in her community to aid students in achieving their educational goals.

Fabiola Vazquez is a junior transfer student double-majoring in English and Spanish literature. She likes to use literature as her personal tool to understand both worlds in which she lives. Her current interests focus on the impact of intergenerational literacy on Latinx populations in the education sector and beyond. Other research interests include perceptions of Spanish-English bilingualism in California and sociolinguistics. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. to work in education and improve the inclusion of multilingual speakers in and out of academia.

How has the mentorship you’ve received through MMUF impacted your research project and academic trajectory?

Sofia: I realized as soon as I discovered MMUF that this was going to prepare me and really give me the push that I needed to see whether a career in teaching, a career in academia was going to be what I could and wanted to do. I happened to apply to the program well before I was even accepted to Berkeley as a transfer student, and that was something that made it incredibly difficult for me to feel confident in my research, my work and myself. I think in the best way this program has allowed me to get the smallest glimpse into the world of academia, enough for me to get a taste of it and leave wanting so much more.

Fabiola: MMUF’s mentorship has provided me with guidance on how to get to a research question and approach a research question in the humanities. A research project at this level is nothing like any research project I have done before and MMUF has provided me insight into what research looks like at the university level and what graduate school is like.

Why did you choose to approach your research interests through a humanistic lens? How has your humanities perspective enriched your academic experience, and what’s at stake for you in your work?

Sofia: My humanities perspective has enriched my academic experience because it provides me with a lens to look at my life and my studies through. It has created an opportunity for me to use a side of my scholarly work in new ways and apply it to my research interests which are undoubtedly a lot more varied and wide in their scope.

Fabiola: My experiences with tutoring older Latinx adults and thinking about my family and their relationship with reading sparked my curiosity to understand more about access to literacy and its intersectionality with ethnic groups.  I am interested in learning more about Latinx attitudes and behaviors toward learning, particularly reading. The humanistic perspective is very important to me because the numbers in literacy mean nothing if we don’t know the lived context behind them.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students who want to pursue humanities research but don’t know where to start?

Sofia: The advice I have for undergraduate students who want to pursue humanities research but don’t know where to start is to throw yourself out there. No one will be a better advocate for yourself than you. It is incredibly hard and difficult to put yourself in a vulnerable position so that you can further yourself, but it is incredibly gratifying. I honestly can say that the best outcomes of interactions I have had, have been when I put myself in vulnerable and uncomfortable situations.

Fabiola: Really good question! I wish I had had this advice prior to starting. I would advise undergraduates to look up and read similar papers in academic databases performed in the area of their interest to start getting ideas and a preliminary literature review. In addition, talking to graduate students or professors who have worked in the humanities and engaged in research may be very useful. One resource I loved this semester and took advantage of was attending paper presentations by visiting scholars hosted by the Berkeley Language Center. These were free and initiated very interesting conversations! Attend all the research workshops or panels that you can. Ask what the challenges and crude realities are, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your professors.

Our thanks go out to Sofia and Fabiola for their insights! If you are interested in applying to MMUF, you can learn more about it here: https://artshumanities.berkeley.edu/apply-mmuf-program.