Mellon Mays Fellows at Bowdoin Begin Journey to Graduate School

Each summer, Bowdoin hosts an intensive research program for Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research fellows. Students accepted into the program from Bowdoin—together with visiting fellows from Smith College and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa—live on campus for five weeks, attending seminars, learning research methods, and planning a long-term research project

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation established its undergraduate fellowship program in 1988 to help increase diversity in higher education. Bowdoin set up its Mellon Mays program in 1992, since then graduating many students who have gone on to earn graduate degrees and enter academia. Read about this year’s Mellon faculty, Golden Owens ’15 and Kris Klein Hernandez ’12, who are current Ph.D. students and former Mellon fellows at Bowdoin.

Bethany Berhanu ’20, “Japanese Popular Culture: A Lens into Mental Health in Modern Japan”

For years Bethany Berhanu has loved Japanese art, anime and manga. An Asian Studies and psychology double major, Berhanu took her passion for anime and turned it into a cross-disciplinary research projectIn Japan, where suicide rates are high, conversations surrounding mental health are sparse. Therefore, anime and its influences on culture, Berhanu believes, can have a far-reaching impact on social discourse in the country by acting as  “legitimate avenues for discussions of mental health to take place.”

As Berhanu notes, anime increasingly includes entire plot lines crafted around issues such as anxiety, bullying, and depression. Berhanu hopes that by examining anime through a critical lens she can show how anime might provide a safe platform for discussions surrounding mental health. Additionally she hopes her research can reveal how the Japanese view these portrayals. In the spring, Berhanu will be studying abroad in Japan where she will further build off her research by talking to people in person to understand how anime has affected their own lives. Read more about Berhanu’s project.

Ellen Gyasi ’20, “The Iconic Ghetto and Spectacular Favela Reimagined: The Perceptions, Receptions, and Implications of Black Bodies in White Spaces”

When Ellen Gyasi left her home in Newark, N.J. — a city she loved — at age 14 to attend boarding school, she had a disturbing experience with a city outsider. Her Chicago roommate admitted, at the end of their year together, that she had remained distant from Gyasi because she harbored fears of being murdered by her in her sleep. When Gyasi asked why, the girl replied, “Because you’re from Newark.” This shook Gyasi into considering the power that place has on someone’s identity.

This summer, Gyasi is pursuing her curiosity about “race, class, and spatial association,” in a research project looking at favelas in Brazil and ghettos in the United States. In Brazil, favela residents are burdened with stereotypes that they’re criminals, violent, and morally bankrupt, Gyasi said. This happens despite a widely held notion that Brazilians live in a “racial democracy,” and a post-racial society. Yet, “if you look at the country, the poorest, most illiterate, and socially disadvantaged in Brazilian society are darker-skinned individuals,” she said.

Gyasi says she hopes her cultural comparison of blackness in Brazil and the USA might serve as a bridge between the two nations. While racial activists in the US tend to focus on their home turf, Gyasi suggested they might also turn their gaze outward. There are great struggles outside our 50 states, she said. “I hope my work can begin to set the foundation for cross-country international talks about what blackness is, what it means to be black, what it means to have a colonial legacy, a slave legacy — so we can actually work toward the goals we tout that we have already reached.”

Elijah Kolban-Huberson ’20, “Poetics of Displacement: French Antillean Identity Across Lands and Seas and Me”

As the son of two Guadalupian immigrants, Elijah Kolban-Huberson is used to feeing some confusion about cultural identity. He “has always been seen as an American in the French Guadalupian context, but lived as the son of two immigrants in the American context,” he explained. Instead of shying away from this crisis of heritage, Kolban-Huberson has decided to dig deeper, and examine the experiences of French-Antillean immigrants who “belong to no land and no people…but are not alone in this isolation.” Through an examination of French-Antillean authors and thinkers, Kolban-Huberson is exploring the degree to which the area’s fraught cultural history is rejected or embraced. Language, culture, and colonial histories all play key roles here. The French Antilles were subject to brutal foreign occupancy by the French, but that has left deep connections to France, through language and even a shared citizenship. There are no easy answers to these questions of legacy, and Kolban-Huberson admits that his work only complicates the discussion. But through his analysis, he says he can derive a deeper understanding of the “tension that exists when one is between worlds, unable to fully access either.”

Amie Sillah ’20, “See it to believe Critical Use of Sight to Communicate Affect”

While most people use Twitter to keep up with their friends or favorite public figures, Amie Sillah is using the social network to conduct her summer research project on a concept known as affect theory. As the gender and women’s studies and visual arts double major explained in her presentation, affect theory deals with unconscious emotions we communicate through body language or visuals. Essentially affects are subjective feelings, be it rage or excitement, that are experienced before we even can put a word to them. As innate as affects may seem, they do not appear in a vacuum and can be determined by media. One such example of the media’s influence on our emotions Sillah discussed how “Missing White Girl Syndrome”—the term for the media’s propensity to cover white missing girls more than black missing girls–helps further “a binary of who is worthy of grief and worry and who is not.”

Expanding on the scholarly work surrounding affect theory, Sillah set off to understand how social media is shaping the narrative surrounding protest and activist movements. Over the course of her research, Sillah has attended several protests where she takes careful notes on both the visuals used in protest posters and the visuals that journalists tend to select for their cover photos. Sillah, an avid social media user particularly concerned with contemporary protests and activism, hopes that by conducting this research she can answer two important questions regarding affect: “who is in control of the narratives about activism created on social media?” and “are these affects effective enough to mobilize people toward activism?”

Ray Tarango ’20, “Bringing the Future to Mexico: China’s Impact on the Middle Class”

As China continues to expand its geopolitical influence and the United States is seemingly in a process of retracting its international reach, scholars are paying increasing attention to how China is influencing Latin America. Bowdoin junior Ray Tarango is contributing to this discussion by taking a close look at the rise of Chinese smartphones in Mexico’s middle class. “This provides scholars a glimpse into how a non-Euro-American cultural hegemony has shaped Latin American sensibility, politics, and capital,” he said. Tarango argues that Mexican middle-class consumers benefit from buying Chinese smartphones because the pricey gadgets reinforce their status, differentiating them from lower classes. The phones are also shifting Mexican people’s perceptions of China and its goods, from being shoddy and counterfeit to high-quality and innovative, he added. The relationship between China and Mexico is not new, Tarango continued, but the two countries’ current relationship “comes when China is a global power and Mexico is struggling with its biggest trade partner [the US]….China will continue to build infrastructure and increase foreign direct investment…thus China will have more and more influence in Latin America, which will change geopolitical ties, and break the illusion” of Latin America being the USA’s backyard.”

Reporting by Nicole Tjin A Djie ’21, Cameron Chertavian ’20, and Rebecca Goldfine

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