Courtesy of Thomas Near

On the tall walls of Saybrook College’s dining hall hangs the portrait of Edward A. Bouchet, class of 1874. The portrait, first displayed to the Saybrook community on Oct. 9, 2020, is the first of a person of color to hang in the dining hall in the college’s 89-year history and comes after the Saybrook renovation in 2001 that created a new entry named for the Yale alum. 

Bouchet was the College’s first Black student and the first African American to earn a doctorate in the United States. Bouchet was also among the first 20 Americans to receive a doctorate in physics, the sixth to earn a doctorate in physics at Yale and for his academic achievements, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1874.

The legacy of Bouchet lives beyond just a portrait and entryway through the dean of Saybrook College, Ferentz Lafargue. Lafargue is Yale College’s only currently serving Black residential college dean and director of the Mellon Mays and Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship Program. Last week, I sat down with him to discuss the aims of the program, his role in its operation and his reflections on the last three years. 

Q. How does the legacy of Edward A. Bouchet live on at Yale?

A.The Bouchet legacy lives on in a couple of different ways. The entryway in which the dean’s office at Saybrook College is located is the Bouchet entryway. There is the Edward A. Bouchet Society, a graduate society run out of the Office of Graduate Student Diversity. And then there is the program that I administer, the Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which provides support for students from underrepresented backgrounds who are considering PhDs primarily, but features in higher ed. The goal is to diversify the professoriate, so underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, as well as first-gen, low-income students and students from a variety of different backgrounds end up applying for the program. So there, there are a few different ways that the legacy of Bouchet lives on. 

Q. Why does Saybrook College memorialize Bouchet?

A. The Bouchet Portrait is a project that was steered and completely driven by Head of College [Thomas] Near. One of the things that he noticed both as a fellow of Saybrook and eventually as a head of college was that pictures in the dining hall did not align with the diversity that is now represented at Yale. Head of College Near knew about the legacy of Bouchet, saw the Bouchet entryway and thought that Dr. Bouchet would be a great addition to the portraits in the Saybrook dining hall as a way of modernizing what the artwork can look like in the Saybrook dining hall.

Q. When was the Undergraduate Fellowship Program founded, and how has it remained after all these years? 

A. The Bouchet Program is in its 20th year and is connected to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship here at Yale, which is in its 38th year. The Mellon Mays Program is a national program. It serves about 40 different college campuses. Ours is one of the few that has a partner program with the Bouchet Program. It’s supported by generous donors, primarily the Robinson family, and it’s their gift that allows the fellowship to continue to live on.

Q. When did you take the program over?

A. I became co-director first in my second year here in the 2019 academic year. And my co-director, professor Renee Barnes, who was the dean of Pierson, left to take a role as a chair of women and gender Studies at Smith College. And so, I’ve been director since spring 2020.

Q. As Yale’s only currently serving Black residential college dean, what does it mean to you to head the program?

A. It means quite a few different things. One, I was drawn to the program because of my own experience with the Mellon Mays Minority Undergraduate Fellowship at Queens College. I’ve actually been involved with the program for over 20 years. I was a graduate assistant for the Queens College Program, helped serve as a graduate assistant at the Wesleyan program and worked with the Williams program when I was at Williams, so I’ve been involved with Mellon since 1996. So, when I arrived at Yale, I knew the program really well and when the service opportunity to work with Bouchet Program opened up, it was something that I knew that I was completely interested in. It aligned with my values and it aligned with my long-term academic and professional interests. It’s a unique opportunity to work with students who are incredibly driven, who are coming from a variety of research backgrounds, so I’ve learned much more from the students than I could have ever imagined instructing them.

Q. You mentioned that the program aligns with your values, could you speak on what those values are?

A. One of the things that we strive to do in the program is give the students as clear a sense of what it means to give back and be part of a community in higher education. The program is a cohort model. They get a chance to interact with fellows who have a couple of similar programs throughout the Northeast. It’s an opportunity to promote research and scholarship, and it’s an opportunity to work with students on things that they are passionate about. So it’s also an opportunity for me to both learn in terms of being a lifelong learner and also helping someone else to achieve a goal that they have defined and devised for themselves.

Q. I really like the idea that you, the director of the program, are learning from the students who are part of it. What sort of things have you learned from students over the years?

A. Everything. I’m always inspired by the drive students have. They’re conceptualizing and thinking through things that I was not when I was their age. Now more than ever, students are doing transnational or international work, so projects that initially seemed to be very domestically based, students are applying for the [International Study Award] taking part of their summer stipend through the program, when travel was permitted, to do language study to sort of advance their language skills and do research abroad, for example.

There’s also the maturity our students have. They’re able to just live on their own in far-flung parts of the world for two or three months at a time, at the end of the summer. I often think to myself when I was in college, I was just focused on making it through the term so I could maybe earn some money over the summer at some local summer job or get an internship, and these are students who are taking on or pursuing these fairly ambitious research projects. 

I’m also learning a lot from the students about how to have faith. They don’t always know where they will ultimately end up on a project, but they still have enough faith to pursue it. A lot of them are anxious about their projects because they think that what they produce will be their only gateway to graduate school or work outside of higher ed before returning to grad school. So, there’s a certain level of pressure the students apply to their projects, but they maintain faith that they’re going to complete it. And I’m always inspired by that because there are plenty of things that I’ve started in my own life and don’t always follow through on. It’s just amazing being surrounded by plenty of people who have the time and who are on their own time working to make these things happen. 

Q. What are some of the challenges that you face in running the program?

A. The only challenges that are faced are the challenges that we’re all facing. It’s the restrictions and the upheaval caused by COVID. 

So the biggest challenge really has been for two years now, watching the students having to reel back. They’ve done a masterful job in a number of ways to kind of meet the moment and kind of reconfigure their projects based on whatever constraints that they have. But when we select the students, and they join the program, I’m as excited about what they’re planning to do as they are sometimes, and it’s painful sometimes to know that the student who had a really great project idea that involves relocating to a particular community to interview members of that community is not going to be able to do it. 

Q. How do you feel about the current state of the program, and where do you see it in the next 20 years?

A. I think the program is in really good shape. We’ve been able to do a lot. We have a really good team. We’re now able to offer a half-credit seminar and that additional structure allows us to create deeper partnerships with other campus offices. We get a chance to do a lot of research and development with the Poorvu Center, and we’re able to bring in program alums for work in progress talks or keynote talks. 

Ideally, over time, one of the things that I would like to eventually work on is a Summer Institute for the new students in the program so that we’re able to form the cohort bond sooner. That way, they’re able to kind of pick up some of the key concepts of developing a research project and working with a mentor, so we’re able to do even more during the course of the year.

This interview was edited for clarity and flow.

MICHAEL NDUBISI