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“All these opportunities were thrown at me and I knew I had to grab them.”
Marlen Rosas CC’14 found her calling earlier than most students at the College. After taking Latin American Civilization II at Columbia her first year, she fell in love with the region and knew she wanted to focus her academic interests there. A first-generation college student of Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican descent, Rosas attributes her decision to major in Latin American and Caribbean studies partly to her heritage and partly to her interest in historical research — a decision that has led her on the path to a Ph.D. program in history, which she will begin this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.
During the second semester of her sophomore year, after the urging of the teaching assistant from her Latin American Civilization class, Rosas applied and was accepted to Columbia’s Mellon Mays Undegraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF), a program that provides valuable research training, faculty mentorship and financial support for undergraduate students who wish to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in the professoriate, and whose intellectual and social commitments embody those of the late Dr. Benjamin Mays. As a Mellon Mays fellow, Rosas received financial support from the program for two summers and four semesters of research. For three months during the summer following her sophomore year, Rosas was able to conduct research on indigenous movements in Latin America; so began her first brush with academia. “It was great because I had the freedom to do what I wanted,” Rosas says. “I read about practically every country in Latin America and their indigenous movements.”
Rosas, along with the other fellows in the Columbia chapter of MMUF, was an advisee of Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology; Jarvis McInnis, the program graduate assistant and an English literature doctoral student who was also a Mellon Mays fellow as an undergraduate at Tougaloo College; and Hazel May, senior associate dean of Academic Affairs, a team that Rosas says formed an “unbelievable support system, especially this past fall semester as I went through the stresses of applying to graduate school.” Fellows in the program start the academic year with either a week-long research workshop for rising juniors or a week-long GRE workshop for rising seniors, and then continue to meet weekly with the three coordinators in order to discuss their research, learn about the academy and prepare for graduate school in a multitude of ways.
Sparked by her MMUF-supported research during the summer of 2012, Rosas’ growing interest in indigenous peoples in Latin America led her to Chile in the spring of her junior year through a study abroad program, SIT Chile: Cultural Identity, Social Justice & Community Development. Based out of Valparaiso, the program included a half-semester of structured classes and a half-semester in which Rosas conducted field research on the historical relationship between the Mapuche and the Chilean state. While conducting research, Rosas was also given the opportunity to live with the Mapuche community of Llaguepulli in the Lago Budi territory of southern Chile .
“The independent research component of the program made me realize I wanted to [do] a lot of oral and ethnographic history in grad school, and [showed me] the value of getting people’s perspectives on history over getting it from a secondary source,” she says. In the summer of 2013, Rosas decided to diversify her knowledge of Latin America and conducted research at Princeton on indigenous movements in Brazil.
Outside of her academic pursuits, Rosas is the former president of the Columbia University Chapter of Project Rousseau, a program that matches high school students with college students for their entire high school careers. Speaking about her mentee, Rosas says, “I'm excited to see her going off to college after seeing her determination, her hard work and her positive attitude get her to where she is now.”
Through her experience with Project Rousseau, Rosas has complemented her Ph.D.-pursuing aspirations with her goal of being an educator. She hopes to be able to bring more educational opportunities to minority students from diverse backgrounds using both her work with Project Rousseau and with MMUF. “It'll be a proud day for me when one of my Project Rousseau students goes on to become a Mellon Mays Fellow, and I'm positive it will happen!” she says.
Last April, through a week-long exchange program between Project Rousseau and Rysensteen Gymnasium, a Danish high school, Rosas traveled to Copenhagen along with five Project Rousseau students. While in Denmark, the students lived with their Danish counterparts, attended classes at the host school, took in the Copenhagen sights, and participated in a Model United Nations conference with Rysensteen and other partner schools from Egypt, India and Spain. The program offered Project Rousseau’s students “an intercultural exchange with students their age in order for both sides to learn and explore new perspectives,” Rosas says. “I thought it was such a great experience for our students – some of them had never been out of the state, or the country.”
Before heading to Philadelphia for the start of her Ph.D. program, Rosas will be steeped in academic pursuits of a different sort. Similar to her work with Project Rousseau, she will facilitate courses for high school girls in Newark and New York as a dean with the Sadie Nash Leadership Program, a program that, according to its website, “promote[s] leadership and activism among young women.”
Through it all, MMUF has given Rosas support that began by helping her develop her research skills and continued to support her straight through the graduate school application process. “All these opportunities were thrown at me and I knew I had to grab them,” Rosas says. “The biggest challenge of being at Columbia is finding the community that will support you. I found that in Mellon Mays.”
Mihika Barua CC’15, from Mumbai, is a student web editor for the Columbia College website. A political science major, she is also editor of Spectrum, the blog of the Columbia Daily Spectator.