MTSU’s Diversity Dissertation Fellowship program will welcome three new fellows from across the country to campus this fall to support them in completing the final year of their doctoral degrees and to bring their expertise to the classroom and larger campus community.
Nia Allen, pursuing her degree in hospitality and retail management, will work out of the Department of Human Sciences; Sandra Jacobo, pursuing her degree in literature, will work out of the Department of English; and Toni Owens, pursuing her degree in human and community development, will work out of the Department of Social Work.
“We look forward to welcoming the diversity dissertation fellows to MTSU,” said University Provost Mark Byrnes, whose office coordinates the program. “Historically, the participants in this program have made significant contributions to our campus, both pedagogically and culturally. We anticipate another great year with this year’s fellows, who represent diversity in disciplines and experiences.”
Started about 15 years ago, the program selects fellows for the yearlong position from a pool of minority or ethnically diverse doctoral candidate applicants with only their dissertation remaining to complete their degree requirements, said Dr. Amy Aldridge Sanford, vice provost for academic programs at MTSU.
“Writing a dissertation can be a very lonely experience, and if a person doesn’t complete it, they’re looking at a lot of debt with no terminal degree to gain employment to support the repayment of that debt,” Sanford said. “We know in higher education we need to create a pipeline to support a more diverse population in the professorship and to provide the mentoring and support needed for success.
“Through our DDF program, we hire fellows with a salary and benefits, and they’re responsible for teaching one course with the rest of their time open for dissertation work. We also try to get them offices within their specific department; we try to get them incorporated into departmental meetings; we provide early-on mentoring and networking.”
Sanford said the program also serves MTSU’s larger mission, as a comprehensive regional university, to help students everywhere complete their degrees.
“Especially students who may be the first generation in a family to go to college,” she said. “For many of our fellows, they’re the first in their family to get a terminal (doctoral) degree, the highest you can go in that discipline.”
Dr. Leah Tolbert Lyons, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, serves on the fellowship committee and said the program helps diversify the professoriate as well.
“Fellows also gain valuable classroom experience that helps them achieve success in the profession,” Lyons said. “The fellows enrich the life of our campus community by contributing their disciplinary expertise in the classroom and to the academic and intellectual life of their assigned department and college.”
‘A serendipitous moment’
Fellow Allen, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, said the acceptance email from Lyons changed her life.
“I think it was a serendipitous moment,” said Allen, who is writing her dissertation about Black women, their activism and their relationship with luxury fashion.
“I initially wanted to move to the Nashville area after I received my Master of Fashion Industry Studies from Kent State, but God said it was not the right time. Two years later and now … everything is aligned in the way it should be.”
“I am excited about the opportunity for our Textiles, Merchandising and Design Program to provide students with this diverse perspective,” chair Gina Pisut said of the department’s first fellow. “Having a fellow will bring forth greater awareness in students of how diversity applies to our industry and encourages this positive open conversation moving forward.”
Fellow Jacobo, who’s from the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City, said she is excited for the opportunity and to relocate to a place she has never been before.
“I’m excited for the teaching opportunity, especially a course that directly relates to my research!” said Jacobo, whose dissertation investigates how art created by Afro-Caribbean femme writers and artists reshapes and retells narratives around their embodied experiences.
“I think it’s (the program) important because academia is a space that usually doesn’t serve minority and people of color students and faculty. It is exciting to see a program that highlights the importance of diverse scholars and their work. Representation is extremely important!”
English department chair Stephen Severn said he also is very excited to have Jacobo join them.
“Not only does she bring a distinctive cultural perspective that will add to the diversity of our department, her specific area of academic expertise is one that no other faculty members in the English department really focus on,” Severn said. “Our undergrad students will gain exposure to texts and readings that they would normally not encounter.”
Fellow Owens, a Kansas City, Kansas, resident, said she was elated to find out she was selected for the program.
“I received such a warm welcome from everyone. I am just excited to work with such kind people,” said Owens, who had a campus tour with Sanford in March. “The program attracts instructors from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to MTSU … and also immerses fellows into academia in a way that gives us a glimpse of what our careers may be like as future faculty members.”
Owens said plans to write her dissertation about the Black student experience at a predominantly white institution during the pandemic.
Social work department chair Cathy McElderry echoed her fellow administrators’ and the fellows’ sentiments about the program’s benefits, both for individuals from historically underrepresented backgrounds and MTSU’s opportunity to grow more diverse and inclusive.
“We are excited by the opportunity to have a fellow in our department,” McElderry said. “We anticipate that current faculty and students will benefit from the new ideas and innovative teaching strategies.”
To learn more about the Diversity Dissertation Fellowship program at MTSU, visit the website at www.mtsu.edu/provost/accessdiversity.php.
— Stephanie Wagner (Stephanie.Wagner@mtsu.edu)