Scholar Sherri V. Cummings’s route to Brooklyn College was not a traditional one.

“By the time I realized I wanted to study African history and African-American history,” says Cummings, “I was already a senior at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], and I just couldn’t take school anymore.” She graduated with a fashion degree but promised herself she would come back to the study of history. And so more than two decades later, when Cummings felt “burnt out” from a career in the fashion industry, she enrolled at Brooklyn College.

“Brooklyn College was the only CUNY school that had an Africana studies department at the time. Every other school had only programs. I wanted to be embedded in a department.”

“Sherri took my undergraduate African history survey class,” recalls Professor Lynda Day, “and after the first day, maybe the second, I said, ‘Oh my goodness. This student is brilliant!’”

When Day challenged her students to consider becoming professional scholars, the idea immediately resonated with Cummings, for whom a future in academia started to seem possible. “Since then,” says Cummings, “Lynda Day’s guidance and mentorship have been instrumental to my growth as a scholar.”

A crucial part of this guidance came in the context of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), an upper-division honors program for which Day became Cummings’ thesis adviser, guiding her research on “Palm Trees and Cement Dreams: The Migration of Caribbean Women From the British West Indies to New York City, 1900–1950.”

“History Professor K.C. Johnson taught the honors thesis course, guided my research and accompanied me to NCUR (National Council of Undergraduate Research Conference) at the University of Kentucky where I presented my thesis,” says Cummings.

The MMUF was created to attract highly qualified minority students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in specific fields.

“What the Mellon Mays program does is not just give students the opportunity to academically succeed, but also shows them what a career in academia can look like,” says School of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Rosamond S. King, who was the director of the program while Cummings was in it. King, an early fellow herself, credits the mentoring she received through the program when she was an undergraduate at Cornell University as why she pursued a doctorate.

“Professor King always exposed us to other scholars who were in graduate school and talked to us about the graduate school process as well as everyday life,” says Cummings.

Cummings primarily studies the Atlantic World—the term scholars use to describe the complex system of cultural contacts and economic connections linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries—and the intertwined concept of the Black Atlantic, “which means I centralize Africa and then go outwards,” she says. When she earned her history Ph.D. from Brown University in 2022, with a dissertation titled “In Search of Equiano’s Sister: Girlhood and Slavery in the Early Modern British Atlantic,” Cummings was co-recipient of the department’s Distinguished Dissertation Prize.

After completing her Ph.D., Cummings accepted a joint position as professor of history and Africana studies at Rhode Island College, in Providence, and historian and director of community engagement for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. In this dual capacity, Cummings spends part of her time teaching and part working with the society’s archive, which she says has been under wraps for more than 20 years.

Cummings is excited to be working with the society’s trove of archival documents, always with the idea that the story they tell belongs to the people. “I love when I am challenged with bringing students or the broader, the wider community in to see what we have and to tell them, ‘Hey, this is your history. We should not keep it behind closed doors.’”

Applications for qualified students for the fellowship are being accepted on a rolling basis, with interviews conducted in March and April. Contact Professor Lynda Day, coordinator of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, or the MMUF for more information.