Mellon Scholars Program: Preparing for Success

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

How do I create a competitive graduate school application? What are some ways for me to excel as a graduate student? How do I conduct research at a historical archive? These are some of the questions we set out to answer during the Mellon Scholars Program Workshop. This marks the program’s third year in operation. As in previous years, we had a talented group of students from an array of different academic and personal backgrounds. The common thread among all eight participants was a passion for African American history.

Lasting June 13-June 17, the workshop equips students with the tools required for careers in academia. Specifically, the program includes an intensive series of lectures, trips, and professional development exercises: all activities geared toward preparing students to pursue advanced degrees. I work alongside Program Director Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Library Company Curator Krystal Appiah to produce this unique experience for the Mellon participants.

Seminar with Dr. Vanessa Holden and the Mellon Scholars.

Seminar with Dr. Vanessa Holden and the Mellon Scholars.

At colloquia scheduled throughout the week, students were introduced to the process of historical investigation. Speakers such as Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson and Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson shared their scholarly work and demonstrated how to effectively convey research findings. Dr. Vanessa Holden, who was also the keynote speaker at LCP’s Juneteenth event, held a special session for the workshop participants. At the meeting, Dr. Holden challenged students to interpret and analyze primary source materials relevant to her own work. In this manner, the Mellon Scholars were challenged to enter the mind of a historian at the nascent stage of a project. The culmination of these seeds of evidence was later revealed at the subsequent Juneteenth lecture, where Dr. Holden explained her research conclusions. This gave students an expansive look at a research project from start to finish.

Katherine Ponds presents research on Octavius Catto.Students were also assigned independent research topics for the week. Katherine Ponds, for instance, chose to examine the ways in which studying and teaching the Classics reflected Octavius Catto’s black political agenda. Participants then used the collections of the Library Company to shed light on their individual topics. Throughout the week, the staff worked with students to help them navigate the archives and think critically about source materials. Participants were asked to contextualize, interrogate, and analyze primary and secondary sources to reveal the significance of their subjects. Their work culminated in presentations delivered on the final day of the workshop. The colloquium was run in formal academic fashion to familiarize students with communicating their conclusions, receiving feedback, and answering audience questions.

Serkaddis Alemayehu, Public History Coordinator and Digital Archives Specialist at the Blockson Collection

Serkaddis Alemayehu, Public History
Coordinator and Digital Archives Specialist
at the Blockson Collection

A sizable amount of the students’ time was spent outside the walls of LCP as well. We took the group on a number of trips throughout Philadelphia to acquaint participants with some of the other institutional resources the city has to offer. For instance, we visited Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Mellon Scholars also spent time at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church where they learned about the institution’s background and its role as a pillar of Philadelphia’s black community. Together the trips helped to enrich students’ understandings of African American history.

Lastly, much of the week was dedicated to demystifying the graduate school application process. Dr. Kimberly Saunders from the University of Delaware taught students how to craft strong applications, while LCP Librarian James Green explained how to effectively apply for fellowships. I also led a session on personal statement development and editing. Furthermore, we spent time speaking with students about the expectations of graduate study. For example, I led a meeting focused on navigating graduate school. During the session, I shared lessons I learned through my experiences as a graduate student, and I attempted to address the participants’ questions and concerns. Similarly, Dr. Dunbar led a graduate seminar class so participants could experience how a graduate course operates. Collectively the preparation sessions, research projects, enrichment trips, and speakers worked to empower students to achieve their aspirations. Historical investigation, archival exposure, and application formation: more than mere topics, these themes comprise skills integral to young students entering the world of academia. The Mellon Scholars Program was fortunate to furnish this already talented group of students with these pivotal skills. It was extremely rewarding to work with another cohort of gifted participants, and it was a pleasure to be part of the Mellon Scholars Program another year.

Michael Dickinson
2016 Mellon Scholars Graduate Research Advisor
Doctoral candidate in history, University of Delaware

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