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Graduate student fellowship ends after 11 years

Amanda Gray | Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Erskine Peters Fellowship, which helped African American graduate students finish their dissertations for the past 11 years, will come to an end at the conclusion of this academic year, the Fellowship’s coordinator said.

The Office of the Provost, which funds the Fellowship, decided to terminate the program. The Office did not give a specific reason for its decision, however, the program was not endowed and was funded strictly on a year-to-year basis, Erskine Peters coordinator Maria McKenna said.

McKennasaid the Fellowship aimed to give students the opportunity to experience academic life.

“We wanted to give African-American graduate students an opportunity in[higher education],” she said. “The second goal was for them to experience academic life at a major Catholic university.”

The Fellowship, which funded two to four African-American graduate students for a year to finish their dissertations through the Office of the Provost and other funds, has seen 47 fellows in its 11-year run, she said.

“It is viewed as one of the premiere pre-doctoral fellowships,” McKenna said. “It put Notre Dame on the map as one of the universities putting African-Americans into higher education.”

Richard Pierce, chair of the Africana Studies department and one of the founders of the fellowship program, said the Fellowship brought remarkable individuals to campus.

“We’ve had some great people come through the program,” he said. “[Writing a dissertation] is a lonely process in the academic world — it’s just you and your work. To have this program and to be part of that process with these fellows is good. I get to see the best parts of the students.”

When the idea of a fellowship program for minorities came up in a conversation with First Year of Studies Dean Hugh Page in 1999, Pierce said both agreed they wanted to find a way to increase the number of diverse faculty teaching in higher education. Therefore, they established a fellowship to help students finish their dissertations and enter the teaching realm.

At the same meeting, Erskine Peters — a former Notre Dame English professor who empowered his students and fellow faculty members — was declared the namesake of the Fellowship due to his diverse mindset.

“Peters came here and was committed to students,” he said. “[Notre Dame] is a large experiment. Some say you can’t have reason and faith in one body. Peters challenged that — he showed that you can have this in one mind, one body and one heart.”

McKenna said she believes Peters would have been honored by the fellowship.

“This fellowship program meant a great deal to his family because he was such a pioneer in many ways to the academy,” she said. “Notre Dame did justice to the impact Erskine Peters had on students and the academy by honoring him with this program.”

To commemorate the Fellowship, McKenna said the Africana Studies department, in conjunction with the Institute for Scholarships in the Liberal Arts, the College of Arts and Letters and the Kenneth and Frances Reid Fund, will host a conference from March 29 to March 31.

“We’re having it as a finale,” she said. “The conference is ‘Africana Studies’ Impact on the Academy,’ looking at the study of African people and the diasporas around the world.”

The keynote address, “Minorities in the Academy: Then and Now,” will be given by Earl Lewis, the provost of Emery University. McKenna said Lewis knew Peters when he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, before coming to Notre Dame.

There are no plans to continue a pre-doctoral fellowship program like the Peters Fellowship on campus, McKenna said.

Pierce said he is grateful for the Fellowship and what it taught the faculty of the University.

“We fulfilled the goals we had,” he said. “However, I wish we had more people hired here that came through the program … It’s difficult to think that we didn’t keep them here. Looking at their accomplishments, though, I’m pleased with the little part we played.”