ADI Spotlight: Mélena “Mae” Laudig

Oct. 17, 2023
Melena "Mae" Laudig laughing in the audience along Seraya Jones-Nelson at the Inclusive Academy Symposium 2023

Mélena “Mae” Laudig (She/Her) 

Department: Religion and African American Studies

Program Year: G5

Undergraduate Institution: Yale College (BA in Religious Studies)

Hometown: Amarillo, Texas

ADI Affiliations:

Tell us about your background.

I was born in a mid-sized town called Amarillo, which is located in the Texas Panhandle, an area folks sometimes call the place where you can look the farthest and see the least. I've grown to appreciate being from the Southwest as I've gotten older. I grew up in a place with gorgeous sunsets and canyons, horses and cattle, Southern hospitality and amazing Tex-Mex food. At the same time, my town was very segregated by race and class. I attended schools that were largely racially homogenous, and I was often one of the few Black students (and sometimes the only).

Amid these experiences, I was nourished at home. I grew up in a multi-generational household with my mom and grandmother. My grandmother grew up in a tiny Black community in Arkansas and attended a one-room schoolhouse for Black children. Listening to her stories as a girl and learning at her kitchen table birthed my passion for history. My mom completed her college degree when I was in middle school, and seeing her dedication to her education set the foundation for my own pursuits. My maternal ancestors inspire me each and every day. When I feel afraid, I recite their names and feel rooted, particularly the name of my ancestor Lizzie White, who was an enslaved person in nineteenth-century Arkansas.

What are your research interests?  What excites you about it?

My research illuminates the history of Black religion and children in the United States. While my dissertation focuses on the periods of slavery and emancipation (the nineteenth century), I am broadly interested in the relationship between Black children and religion across time. My work is archivally-based. I use the records of religious schools and orphanages, the diaries of teachers and missionaries, oral histories of enslaved people, antislavery literature, and more to examine how religious communities, institutions, and movements have shaped children's everyday lives. I chose this research path after realizing the grave absence of children's perspectives in traditional historical accounts. I want my work to remedy this.

Black children have been historically marginalized and extremely vulnerable to societal violence. They have also experienced uneven access to the category of childhood because of their intersectional identities (scholars call this phenomenon "adultification"). By this, I mean that Black children are often perceived as less innocent and less childlike than their non-Black peers.

Working from the interdisciplinary fields of African American Studies, Religious History, and Gender and Sexuality Studies, I seek for my work to enrich our understandings of African American children's historical experiences. I also hope that my work can raise awareness about how these systems and processes of adultification and marginalization continue to shape Black children's lives in the present.

What does your family think you do in grad school?

They think I'm training to go into ministry, lol.

How has ADI programming impacted you? 

ADI has become home at Princeton. I actually can't imagine where I would be today or how I would have made it this far through my program without the vital community, support, and comfort of ADI. I have met some of my closest friends through ADI programming and through my work as a Diversity Fellow. ADI is a soft place to land in a town that often feels isolating and uber wealthy and in a university setting where experiences like mine are rarely centered.

What advice would you give prospective, incoming, and/or first year underrepresented Princeton graduate students?

Please prioritize your health. I wish that I had valued myself as my most precious resource when I first entered Princeton. The work will always be there, but we are human (vulnerable, beautiful, fragile) beings who need love and care. Find ways to care for yourself and do it in community with others. Self-care is collective care.

Also, learn more about financial wellness! I have been stressed about money for as long as I can remember. I have a distinct memory of being an eight or nine-year-old girl, writing a budget for my family, and starting an emergency fund for us in my piggy bank. Little me was trying to figure out how to create more financial stability! I have done a lot of work in graduate school to adopt healthier money habits and identify some of my limiting beliefs around money, particularly as someone who grew up low-income.

One resource that has helped me a ton is Emily Roberts's Personal Finances for PhDs podcast. I would encourage everyone to set up a Roth IRA while in graduate school (the only retirement fund to which we have access as grad students), to save money to pay your estimated taxes, to get a credit card in order to start building your credit (and also to get rewards points, which are clutch), and to build an emergency fund. Doing these things and also going to therapy to talk about my financial anxiety has helped me feel a lot more secure.

What's been most helpful to you in acclimating to Princeton?

Asking for help, using every possible resource available to me, and gamifying Princeton (how many free meals can I get this week??).  In all seriousness, Princeton is a space of abundance. I am grateful for the privileges that I have as a student here, and it's a little overwhelming sometimes. I think all marginalized students on campus should feel empowered to stake claims to the resources available. I find that some students feel guilty about doing so, but I want to encourage you by telling you that these resources are here for YOU! Use them shamelessly.

What activities do you engage in beyond research?

Beyond my research, I do my best to take care of myself and to do activities that nourish my spirit and body such as physical movement, acupuncture treatments, time with friends and family, delicious food, music, and traveling (ideally, through my credit card points). On campus, I'm a Diversity Fellow and a Resident Graduate Student. I also recently co-founded a grassroots wellness collective called BLOOM, which offers justice-informed, inclusive, holistic wellness programming. Along with Diversity Fellows Seraya Jones-Nelson and Bri Carvajal, I am working to create spaces and provide more resources around wellbeing for all of the campus community. Specifically, I hope that this initiative provides a safe space for some of the most marginalized students on campus---women and femme-identifying graduate students of color---to dream, rest, and take care of themselves and one another.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in grad school?

If I weren't in graduate school, I would probably be working in some kind of educational space. In another life, I could see myself as a skincare or wellness content creator (even though I don't enjoy social media and currently don't have any social media accounts, lol). I could also see myself as a musical theater performer in this alternate reality. ?

How would your friends describe you? 

The grandma of the friend group.

What should the ADI community know about you?

A few years ago, I experienced a health crisis that awakened me to the ways I was neglecting my body. I was in the middle of my general exams, and I am positive that the stress I was under created the perfect storm for my sudden sickness. After learning that I had a chronic autoimmune condition, I had to completely change my diet, start taking medication for the first time, and transform my schedule/create better boundaries in order to better care for my body. This is all a work-in-progress, but I'm committed to trying every day.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known before?

Because of the archives that I use in my research, I recognize the vital importance of creating an archive of both yourself and your family. While information is ubiquitous on the Internet, the Internet's archive is also unstable and, in some ways, ephemeral.

Physical documents, diaries, photographs, etc. will always be precious and important for keeping history. Oral histories, especially those of our elders, are also extremely valuable. I have recorded some conversations with my grandmother, and I hope to do a more extensive oral history with her soon.

What’s the most interesting thing about you?

I grew up doing very Texan things. For a hot minute, I was a part of a little horse-riding club for kids. We rode around Amarillo, and we would park our horses at fast-food restaurants while we dined inside. I also sang the national anthem at a rodeo.

What’s your perfect day?

Yoga, lots of tea, time with loved ones, a delicious gluten-free and dairy-free dessert, a good novel, a long walk, and if this is an ideal day and I have ideal money, I'll also throw in a visit to Island Spa and Sauna in Edison, NJ!

What book show, podcast, game, song, play, or movie best reflects your grad school experience?

I'm going to copy the brilliant Mimi Borders: Beyoncé's "Break My Soul"....I think the "why" is pretty obvious!

What is, or would be, your superpower?

I think my superpowers are my vulnerability and willingness to listen.