Nancy Ahlberg Mellor '59

Sunday, May 22, 2011 - 09:00

Honorary Degree Citation

Nancy Ahlberg Mellor, class of 1959, you left your home in rural Michigan to come to Mount Holyoke, where you majored in philosophy, married the day after graduation, began teaching in an elementary school, and were fired a year later because you were expecting your first child. You raised your family, resumed your career as a teacher, and in the mid-1980s found yourself in California’s rural Central Valley, teaching mathematics to children of farm workers. You had a fresh master’s degree in gifted education from Johns Hopkins. In the communities of Coalinga and Huron served by your school district, 75 percent of the students who entered high school did not finish, and many other students never entered high school at all.

You walked into your advanced math class at Coalinga Middle School and saw a sea of white faces in a school that was then half Latino. You asked why, got inadequate answers, and went to work. You plucked promising Latino students from your other classes and installed them with the advanced students. You recruited the farm workers’ children for your advanced math classes, coached them and tutored them in sessions after school and at your home. You issued impossible instructions: “You will stop working in the fields for the summer. You will attend a six-week program for gifted youth at the University of California at Berkeley, and you will study harder than you ever thought possible.” You were simultaneously issuing instructions to Berkeley: “You will accept and subsidize my students, and you will look past their test scores to the gifts and the grit underneath.” Crucially, you included students of all ethnic groups from Coalinga and Huran, hoping to break down barriers and believing that all students, white and Latino alike, need more demanding class work and higher expectations. In 1987, Coalinga-Huron-Avenal House at Berkeley was born on the Berkeley campus, named for the three Central Valley cities it serves. To date, CHA House has provided support and college preparation to 400 students. Academically strong and disciplined after summers of intense study, the students have gone on to colleges ranging from Stanford to Harvard—and, of course, Mount Holyoke. They graduate from college and enter careers in engineering, teaching, and medicine. The 2011 program opens next month to 40 eager students.

While you were opening the doors that had too long been closed to these gifted youngsters, you were rising through the school ranks, serving first as teacher, then as guidance counselor, then in school administration, and eventually as district superintendent. Along the way you earned your doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco. But you kept your focus on your students, supporting and pushing them, sweeping away the obstacles of prejudice and underpreparation, and sharing in the joys of their success. Perhaps the simple words of one of your students can sum up the work for which we honor you today. This student was the first in his family to go to college. He went to Swarthmore, and then he did a doctorate in sociology with a dissertation on migrant farm workers. He said, “You feel like you’re worth something.”

For your belief and commitment to students who are indeed worth something, Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.