School: Columbia University
Major: American Studies
Talent: I'm a good cook
BLOC: Lorenzo thank you for taking the time to talk with us today! Here at BLOC we like to spotlight black collegians who are out here doing amazing things. We hear that you were instrumental in creating an important organization at Columbia. Care to share more about that?
Lorenzo: In February 2013, some friends and I co-founded the Men of Color Alliance (MCA), which is an open space for self-identified men of color at Columbia University. We try to bring together students, faculty and staff from across the University and affiliated institutions like Union Theological Seminary; we have programming and events that address issues related to masculinity, race and ethnicity. We have weekly meetings, either workshops or discussions, where everyone in the room has the chance to share their experiences and ideas. It's important to us to work with other student groups on campus with the goal of making Columbia feel more like home for the people who participate in our group. We receive support from some great advisors, but the organization is student-lead, which is really great because it allows us to adapt quickly and meet the needs of students here at our University.
BLOC: Organizations devoted to having critical conversations around these very things are so important especially as we look at the greater conversations happening in this country right now. For those interested in starting similar organizations on their respective campuses, can you shed some light on what it took to get MCA up and running?
L: I think MCA owes a lot to the Office of Multicultural Affairs here at Columbia, which advises and funds a number of other student groups. I think it is imperative that colleges and universities across the country invest in spaces for their students to discuss identity and other difficult topics, and I think my group has benefitted from Columbia's commitment to dialogue. That said, I don't think students should wait for their school to hand over resources. For those interested in creating spaces for dialogue and community on their campus, I recommend starting with meetings wherever and however you can get them. After you've demonstrated that your community is established and needs resources, I think it's easier to petition your institution for those resources.
More specific to our case, however, I think we as students had a big responsibility to flesh out precisely what our mission and vision would be. We were undergraduates trying to create from scratch something that hadn't previously existed at our university. We had—and still have—an ambitious vision driving the work we wanted to do. I think every group needs some kind of drive and a clear sense of purpose; the strategy always emerges.
BLOC: Tell me about the Mellon Mays program and your experience as a fellow.
L: The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) is a nationally-run program that supports underrepresented students as they pursue positions in academia. My Mellon Mays experience has been a big part of undergraduate education and I can't imagine my time as a student without it. I'm in a cohort with four other people and our chapter just welcomed another cohort of five rising juniors. We meet weekly with our graduate and faculty advisors to workshop our individual research projects and to discuss issues of social justice. 'Scholar activism' is a big part of how we engage with issues as a group and it informs the research that we conduct individually.
I'm personally interested in American history, especially American intellectual history, and so I have the chance to pursue a variety of research topics within that field thanks to the support I get from the program.
BLOC: Describe scholar activism a bit more for those who don't know.
L: Scholar activism is about ensuring that your work as a scholar is not solely confined to the halls of academe but also plays a role in improving public life in some way.
It's also about connecting your work to communities of real people, which means acknowledging the impact your work can have on someone's life and being purposeful in how you share your work with colleagues and the public. When you're trained to produce knowledge as academics are, you have a certain set of responsibilities--to your profession, your discipline, to the public, etc.--that you have to uphold. Teaching and contributing to a body of knowledge takes a lot of time and energy. So while a scholar activist may not necessarily be able to organize protests year-round, they can publish critically important work to help people marching in the streets. They can engage with issues through social media even. I think the #FergusonSyllabus is a great example of this.
BLOC: For those black collegians who may be interested in pursuing a PhD, but not apart of networks like Mellon, what advice do you have for them in terms of prepping for grad school?
L: Surround yourself with people who are going to support you throughout your process, from the time you earn your undergrad degree through to the day when you are officially Dr. So-and-So. Pursuing a Ph.D. is not for the faint of heart, and it's unreasonable to think that your intellect alone will hold you down through a multi-year degree program. As you should with any worthwhile endeavor, build a team. This should include peers as well as faculty members you admire and that are willing to support you.
As for identifying graduate programs, you should dig through faculty listings thoroughly. Sure, you may be attracted to a prestigious program or institution, but you should make sure your interests line-up with those of someone currently on faculty at your schools of interest. Your faculty advisors play a critical role in your process as your teachers and as the people who will green-light your degree. In that sense, treat your grad search as you would any other job: ask around for people who have completed or are going through programs at your schools of interest. Know everything you can know so you can make informed decisions once you're ready to apply to schools. And please, for your sake, make sure you have clear goals for yourself following the Ph.D. You don't have to become a professor, but do make sure you have some kind of sense of what you want to do--you are committing a lot of time and energy by saying yes to a degree program offer.
Lastly, don't feel like you have to go straight into a program after completing your undergrad degree. It's ok to do other things and take some time away before investing yourself in such an intense process. I know people who've gone right through and others who took some time off, and there are benefits to both approaches. Just make sure you do what's best for you. At the end of the day, it's only you doing the work.