When she arrived at Columbia College, Michelle Rosales ’12 found it difficult to relate to her classes and classmates. Growing up in a Latino community in East Los Angeles, she had considered herself privileged just to have finished high school. But, once in New York, she felt unprepared compared to other students, who, she thought, had an easier time analyzing texts and articulating their thoughts. She felt she needed to change the way she wrote, dressed and spoke to better fit in with her peers.
But Rosales’ coursework and her acceptance into the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program helped changed that. Through courses in anthropology and Latin American studies, she realized that her life experiences, however different, did matter within an academic context. And through the MMUF program, she met other minority students with similar perspectives and worked on a research project that brought her back to her Los Angeles community.
MMUF is a research program that provides training, faculty mentorship and financial support for undergraduates who want to pursue a Ph.D. Students apply for the program during their sophomore year and those accepted receive a yearly stipend and summer research funding for the following two summers. Fellows can apply for travel and research expense reimbursements and are eligible for undergraduate tuition loan repayments if they enter a graduate program. The Columbia program accepts five College students each year.
The College’s MMUF chapter, which was founded in 1996, is one of more than 30 programs funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Columbia program focuses on research experience, building intellectual connections with faculty and developing the skills necessary to identify, apply to and thrive in a Ph.D. program. Students meet regularly with faculty and graduate students, present their research to fellow students and at conferences and learn the ins and outs of academic careers. Weekly student meetings also provide fellows with a safe space to explore their ideas. Most MMUF alumni have gone on to graduate school, and several are now tenure-track faculty members.
When she was accepted into the MMUF program, Rosales said, she met other students who were experiencing the same type of alienation and who had similar thoughts on the importance of studying critical issues such as class, race, gender and sexuality. The group helped her “form and articulate my thoughts on the way academia can be and should be changed by people that were once excluded and are still marginalized in many ways,” she said.
Rosales originally planned to focus her research on “earthships,” sustainable homes made of natural and recycled materials. But when her parents’ Los Angeles home was foreclosed on, she quickly changed gears.
She instead chose to focus on the housing crisis — on the process and experience of foreclosure in New York City and suburban Los Angeles. In helping her parents navigate the foreclosure process, she said, she got to know real estate and mortgage brokers in Los Angeles and came to understand the interactions and emotions involved in foreclosure. She decided to explore the economic concepts of debt, credit and ownership in relation to the spaces and objects of homes. She also wanted to capture the voices of bankers, along with those who were losing their homes.
“I was struggling with coming up with a topic… and then this happened. It was really interesting to me,” she said. “Everybody was so worried about the economic crisis, all these budget cuts … I wanted to see how everything was connected.”
Rosales said that researching and writing about foreclosures while experiencing the process gave her in-depth insight. She could sympathize with people she interviewed about losing homes and ask insightful questions based on her experience.
The project also gave her insight into her future. Through MMUF meetings with faculty members and graduate students, Rosales realized that she doesn’t want to jump into academia — “not yet, at least” — even though she feels prepared to apply. She wants to pursue legal work and, possibly, attend law school. First, though, she wants to take some time off and work at a nonprofit.
“[MMUF] really showed me that this is my passion, just doing the research and looking at the legal process,” she said. “I think it’s a great thing.”