Rafia Zafar Named Director of WashU Mellon Mays

After three years, Jeffrey McCune steps down as the director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, and Rafia Zafar takes the helm.

This semester, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) at WashU will undergo a change of leadership, as current director Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies and African and African American studies, steps down and Rafia Zafar, a professor of English, African and African American studies, and American culture studies, takes the helm. “Washington University is unique among all Mellon Mays programs because we offer a three-credit, graded, weekly seminar that is led by a tenured member of the faculty,” says Mary Laurita, the coordinator of the WashU MMUF program since 2000. “This is one of the reasons why having a faculty director who is a committed to the mission and goals of the Mellon Mays program is so important. We are extremely lucky to have had Jeffrey McCune, and now Rafia Zafar to step into this role.”

“Jeffrey has been a creative and dynamic leader for the Mellon Mays program, and has fostered substantial intellectual growth in the fellows and community amongst mentors,” says Jen Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Smith is confident that this high level of leadership will continue as Zafar takes on this new role. “Rafia will bring not only her own unique scholarly perspective to the program, but also a facility in mentorship that I am excited to see operate at the scale of the Mellon Mays program.”

Indeed, mentorship is one of the aspects of the MMUF program that Rafia Zafar is most excited about as the new director. “The biggest, best change for me when I arrived at WashU nearly twenty years ago from one of the Big Ten universities was being able to build ongoing advising and mentoring relationships with undergraduates,” she says. “The Mellon Program, set up as it is for faculty to work closely with undergraduates on long-running projects, represents a pinnacle of such pedagogical connections. I’ve had Mellon advisees for a number of years now, and it’s a great experience for us as faculty members to see them develop into the next generation of intellectuals.”

“There are few experiences as gratifying as going to a professional conference and seeing one of your former Mellon advisees in her new-to-you incarnation of an exciting younger colleague,” Zafar says. “That’s what just happened, when I saw Dr. Jessica M. Johnson, assistant professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins, at the African American Intellectual History Society meetings a couple of weeks ago.”

Laurita says Zafar has been a Mellon Mays mentor for as long as she can remember, and with that experience comes a deep understanding of the fellows’ needs as they develop into independent scholars. “Rafia is collaborative and creative, an excellent teacher and mentor,” Laurita says. “She is well respected among our Mellon Mays alumni, and I anticipate inviting more alumni back to WashU to visit with our current fellows since they play such a critical role as scholarly mentors and role models. Rafia will also continue to bring rigor and focus to an essential part of the program, the weekly seminar. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with her on a regular basis and to continue to develop the Mellon Mays program here at WashU in innovative and creative ways.”

For Zafar, the MMUF program also hits a personal note, as she took part in a similar program. She explains, “Twenty years ago, I was awarded a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, which not only gives financial support to ‘diverse’ young scholars but also provides a permanent support network of other such academics, from across the disciplines, who become your career-long friends and mentoring network. The MMUF program offers a similar opportunity to individuals at an earlier stage of their careers.”

Zafar hopes to expand the MMUF program at WashU and plans to continue the tradition of excellence started by her predecessors. As director for the past three years, McCune established benchmarks for junior and senior fellows, which better facilitates completion of the program, formalized the roles of faculty in mentor-student relationships, developed an annual symposium for Mellon Mays fellows to present their work and receive copious feedback from WashU's academic community, increased the visibility of the program on campus, and established the thesis as paramount for completion of WashU Mellon program.

He says that within the position, “I was able to see more clearly the role of research in retention of underrepresented minority students. The relationships forged and the strong focus on a research project truly sustained some folks and kept them academically ‘above water,’ so to speak.” On a more personal level, McCune says the fellows inspired him. “Honestly, watching and working with these ambitious young scholars increased my ambition and belief in my own intellectual pursuits and powers.”

“I will miss the daily and weekly opportunity to be in the presence of brilliance of a special kind; those who are very smart, but also very good citizens of the world at very young ages,” says McCune. “Watching this be cultivated through the MMUF program is a reward that cannot be understated.”

Laurita says McCune has brought so much to the program during his tenue. “Jeffrey's amazing amount of energy, creativity, focus, and leadership skills have helped us to rethink how we present the goals of the program to our community and how we communicate with current and future Mellon fellows. He has been a superb spokesperson for the program not only at WashU, but at the national level as well at the annual coordinators' conferences. He has been a pleasure to work with over the past three years.”

McCune will now be turning his focus to two book projects, and he has the utmost faith in his successor. “Professor Zafar’s appreciation for interdisciplinary thought and methods will be especially helpful to students,” he says. “As a teacher, she pushes her students to the next level, which is imperative for anyone who will direct this rigorous program. She is also a person who I know believes in the rich potential of our students; I have seen her as a proven advocate for student achievement and success. No doubt, the program is in good hands.”