August 11, 2014 – In June, the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies commenced its fourteenth and final Summer Humanities Institute (SHI). Funded through generous grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and University of California, Office of the President, the program caters to high-achieving students from historically under-represented groups in their junior and senior year, planning to pursue doctoral degrees in the humanities and social sciences, with a focus on the African American experience. The 2014 cohort hails from six different schools, primarily historically black colleges and universities: Spelman College; Lincoln University of Pennsylvania; Fort Valley State University; Norfolk State University; Morehouse College; and Savannah State University. This program is intense, requiring its participants to have strong academic skills, and the ability to work at a fast pace while covering challenging materials.
During the program, students attend faculty run seminars geared to strengthen knowledge of current conceptual approaches, research methodologies, and presentation techniques. Students are also required to go on field study courses, participate in cultural enrichment activities, write a research paper, create a PowerPoint presentation, and present their findings in a conference setting. While the students work with the Bunche-affiliated humanities and humanistic social science faculty, one of the keys to the success of participants in the program is their interaction with the SHI graduate student mentors (GSRs).
SHI GSRs serve as liaison between SHI students and the faculty, provide student support, guide participants in their research, assist them in writing their research paper, accompany them on local field trips, give advice based on their own experience of applying to (and surviving) graduate school, and generally are available to answer questions and deal with issues that arise for the students, many of whom are sometimes away from their families and/or home campuses for the first time. It can be a daunting task to support SHI students on their academic journey. The 2014 SHI GSRs, Jonathan Collins and Kimberly Mack, bring unique and important skills and experience to their mentoring, which have helped make this year’s program another successful summer in SHI’s 14 year history. We had an opportunity to speak briefly with this year’s SHI GSRs about their experience, research and future plans.
Kimberly, who earned her undergraduate degree from NYU, is finishing her last year as a PhD candidate in the UCLA English Department.
Ed.: How many years have you served as a GSR in SHI?
KM: This will be my sixth year working with the program. I’m sad that it’s ending.
Ed.: Why? What is it that you like about the program?
KM: I believe in this program wholeheartedly – it works – it does a great job of replicating the rigors of graduate school. Students leave SHI and go to graduate school, they go to elite programs, they go on and become faculty. This program works and there is evidence that it works.
Ed.: What has your experience been working with the SHI students?
KM: Working with the SHI students makes you feel like you are doing something tangibly worthwhile. You work with them on their research and writing, but you also mentor them and talk about applying to grad school and what it’s like.
Ed.: Tell me about your research interests.
KM: My research is on the autobiographical impulse in contemporary American blues literature, drama, and popular music. I’m looking at blues as a storytelling form, contesting persisting ideas of blues authenticity, and questioning how narrators, characters, and musicians invent themselves through autobiographical acts – manipulating the idea of a so-called authentic “blues person.” I’ve been looking at novels, dramatic texts, and real-life musicians from the 1960s to the present that are in a conversation with an early 20th-century idea of a real blues figure.
Ed.: What are some of your long-term goals?
KM: I’m on the academic job market this fall, and I’ll be looking for a tenure-track faculty job in English, but hopefully in an interdisciplinary program – perhaps in the area of cultural studies.
Jonathan, who did his undergraduate work at Morehouse, was a graduate of the SHI program in 2010. He is a PhD candidate at UCLA in Political Science.
Ed.: You have the unique experience of getting to work as a GSR in a program where you were once a participant. What has that been like?
JC: I sincerely believe that the only reason I am at UCLA is because of the SHI program. All the people I know here now, the faculty and staff, are people I met during my summer as an SHI participant. And they supported me when I applied to graduate school here because of the relationships I formed with them during SHI.
As a GSR, it’s important for me to help the students understand that this is a unique opportunity. As an SHI student, you come in and think this is going to be easy academically, but it’s not. You have to work hard, it’s very challenging. But it is also an opportunity to set goals, improve skills, and most importantly, realize that you have to take advantage of having time on the UCLA campus, getting to know the people who work here and their research.
Ed.: How do you feel about the SHI program coming to an end?
JC: I think that when we look back at this program in 10 years, we are going to really understand its impact, how important it was. And we will probably see a void in the number of HBCU students applying to graduate school.
Ed.: What are your research interests?
JC: My areas of focus are American politics, public policy, race and ethnicity. I’m interested in policy outcomes and community mobilization towards policy goals and public goods. I want to examine how communities of color mobilize and produce goods.
Ed.: What are your long-term goals?
JC: I’d like to end up teaching at a research university back in Tennessee, where I have family. A great deal of work needs to be done in that region and there is a talent drain there. People leave [to get an education] and don’t come back. But there is a lot of inequity; you don’t see many blacks in management or higher education. Returning, teaching there, I can help address that.
Students from this year’s SHI program will present their research at the SHI UCLA Summer Humanities Institute & California State University Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholars Symposium on August 12 and 13 from 9:00am until noon in the Hacienda Room of the UCLA Faculty Center. The presentations are free and open to the public. Please attend and support these young scholars and meet the profiled GSRs. For more information about the symposium, Click Here.The Summer Humanities Institute will run until Saturday, August 16, 2014.