This year marks the 20th anniversary of the César Chávez Dissertation Fellowship. It was established in 1993 in honor of César Chávez, with the aim of providing support for underrepresented minorities in academia as they pursue their Ph.Ds. By providing our undergraduates with examples of successful Latino students, the fellowship also promotes diversity at Dartmouth and throughout higher education. Initially exclusively for minority students, the fellowship was recently expanded to include any graduate student committed to the wider field of Latino studies. The fellowship supports graduate students for a year-long residency at Dartmouth, from September through August. It provides them with a stipend of $25,000, office space, library privileges, and a research grant of $2,500.
César Chávez, the fellowship’s inspiration, was a Mexican-American labor activist who played a prominent role in the promotion of minority and workers’ rights in the US. Having experienced poverty and discrimination from a young age, Chávez became heavily involved with the Latino civil rights movement. He was key in organizing Mexican-American migrant laborers under the United Farm Workers. Here he worked with Dolores Huerta and other activists. The fellowship not only celebrates his life but also honors his close association with the Hitchcock Medical School. With this Dartmouth School he examined the effects of pesticides in migrant workers. The César Chávez Fellowship is one of many tributes to his human embodiment of the struggle against discrimination and the fight for human dignity.
The fellowship has a strong tradition of supporting scholars that go on to excel in their fields. The very first Chávez fellow, Tiffany Ana López, has recently been named the Tomás Rivera Chair at the University of California Riverside. López herself is a poster child for the benefits of the program. The granddaughter of migrant farmworkers, López went to public school and community college. Whilst at community college she was advised to go to state college, then to the University of California (UC) for her Ph.D. López came to Dartmouth to finish writing her dissertation. The Chávez fellowship facilitated the development of a talented student and helped her transition into academia. Commenting on her experiences, López said:
“The time here at Dartmouth completely changed my life because I had rarely been out of the state of California. Having been a first generation college student, I barely understood what it meant to go forward in my education beyond high school. The Chávez Dissertation Fellowship changed my life.”
Silvia Spitta, a Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth, has been involved with the Chávez fellowship from its inception. She also emphasizes the trajectory shaping of the fellowship’s effects on students. “It allows people to envision becoming a scholar—the fellowship provides an example to students of what they can achieve. Before coming to Dartmouth and becoming a member of this academic community Tiffany had not realized her own potential and had no models to inspire her to a life as an intellectual. Likewise, they then provide an example to minority students here of what they can achieve.”
The Fellowship cultivates a close-knit academic community. It is a beautiful example of how support for the arts can change lives and can have a domino effect in or on the lives of others. This is a relatively inexpensive program that has a huge return not only in the careers of young scholars but that gives Dartmouth great visibility across the US. Lopez herself has had a prolific career. She has worked with multiple creative artists including Maria Irene Fornes, Cherríe Moraga and Culture Clash. As an academic she has published numerous essays, articles, chapters and reviews in books and journals, including Theatre Journal, Aztlan-A Journal of Chicano studies and Frontiers-A Journal of Feminist Studies. In Professor Spitta’s words: “It would be great to have more doctoral and postdoctoral fellows at Dartmouth. They would serve as models for our students and enrich the intellectual climate at Dartmouth in incalculable ways.” Twenty years after the death of César Chávez, the fellowship continues his work. It is a great tribute to the spirit of minority rights and the fight against poverty. Here, education acts in the same way as a picket line or a protest, it liberates the individual from their disadvantaged background, on their own terms. If you need proof, I will leave you with the words of Chávez and the example of Tiffany López: “Sí se puede!
By Dan Durcan