Black scholars work to better represent their communities in academia

Kamari Esquerra

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of the Daily Texan’s new collaborative series “Raising Voices,” which highlights issues of diversity at UT. Stories are produced in partnership with UT’s chapters of Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists Association and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association. Kamari Esquerra is a member of NABJ.

Both Zaria El-Fil and Octavian Moten, African and African diaspora studies juniors, considered getting a doctorate degree in black studies, but they had doubts.

Through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which works to improve representation of minority students in academia, El-Fil and Moten are now on a path to earn doctorate degrees. 

“The program has opened my eyes and given me a great avenue to get that,” Moten said.

Every year, Mellon Mays helps students from universities across the country conduct undergraduate research and prepares them to apply for graduate school programs in any field — but especially in the
humanities. The program also helps students find financial resources to pay for graduate school. 

El-Fil worried she could not afford a Ph.D., which typically requires at least eight years of higher education. This was time and money El-Fil didn’t think was possible for her to spend before becoming a Mellon Mays scholar.

“That’s the purpose of Mellon Mays, to make this seem obtainable for students of color because coming in, a lot of the times it isn’t,” El-Fil said. 

Along with other UT students in the program, El-Fil and Moten will present their research at the annual Mellon Mays conference that will be held in Austin from Oct. 23 to Oct. 25 and at Duke University from Nov. 2 to Nov. 4.

El-Fil is also majoring in psychology, and Moten first enrolled as a computer science major, but they both focus on researching social issues that impact African Americans to better represent their communities
in academia.

“My research, I always describe it as my labor of love; my love for black people and black history,” El-Fil said.

El-Fil’s project focuses on historical research about the psychology of sexually abused, enslaved women. She said her work takes 19th century slavery and gives it more dimension by using modern psychology theories to view the enslaved as people instead of as abstract objects in history.

“They didn’t have the understanding of mental health that we do now,” El-Fil said. “It was a fundamentally violent and abusive institution and now we know that violence has an adverse risk on mental health.” 

Growing up, El-Fil said she did not understand the mental strength of enslaved women who suffered emotional and physical trauma because of the way slavery is taught. By including psychology in historical research, El-Fil hopes to change this.

“When I was in middle school and we learned about slavery, I felt embarrassed,” El-Fil said. “I hope   (my research) influences the way younger generations are taught so that they never have to go through what I went through of hating my blackness because of what history taught me my blackness was.”

Moten’s research focuses on the negative effects the school-to-prison pipeline can have on African-American students. Moten interviewed previously imprisoned men to better understand the system. 

The inspiration for his topic came from mentoring black and Latino males in East Austin through UT’s Project MALES program.

“The students are good kids, but some of them have been told for so long that they are bad kids that they tend to act out in such a way,” Moten said. “That has impacted me to do research and go beyond just mentoring these students, but trying to break the (prison industrial) system down altogether.” 

Both Moten and El-Fil are putting the finishing touches on their research projects, but they said they often struggled to believe in themselves during their research. 

“My biggest challenge was believing in myself and believing I could do research like this, finding out whether or not I could be successful at academia,” Moten said. “I’ve grown to realize this is something I can do.”

El-Fil said she had doubts in her research idea of integrating psychology into history because she received pushback from professors.

“I talked to many professors,” El-Fil said. “And they told me, ‘That’s unheard of, you can’t mix psychology and history, two completely different fields of study. No one has ever done it. It’s impossible.’”

But El-Fil’s Mellon Mays mentor Daina Ramey Berry, an associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies, encouraged her to pursue her idea.

Because UT is a predominantly white institution, El-Fil said she often didn’t share her research interests with students, worrying non-black peers wouldn’t appreciate it. 

“(One of the harder parts) is knowing that my work is really only valued by the black community and not supported by the greater UT community,” El-Fil said. 

But being chosen to be a Mellon Mays scholar helped El-Fil gain her confidence.

“Mellon is known to take people with very bright minds, and that is definitely something that would help someone to believe in themselves,” El-Fil said. “It’s like if they believe (in you), then you’re something special.” 

Moten and El-Fil hope their projects will reach people beyond the black community at UT. Following the conferences, they will continue to develop and refine their research until they graduate in spring 2020.

At the graduate level, Moten plans to pursue a Ph.D. in African and African diaspora studies, a degree he hopes to use to ultimately develop policy for community development.

 “To me, it doesn’t seem helpful if I simply bring about knowledge of these problems and don’t make an effort to change them,” Moten said. 

El-Fil plans to earn a doctoral degree in history to expand her current research.

“My entire life’s plan is to re-think history and dedicate care to the experience of black people,” El-Fil said. “I want to teach children black history in ways that empowers them and gives them a firm sense of self.”