Berkeley Sociology student Mellony Palma wins Robert J. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Recognition Award

May 10, 2024

Mellony Palma, a Berkeley senior majoring in Sociology, was recently selected for Berkeley’s Robert J. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students for her efforts to help young children and adults navigate the foster system. The award honors individuals whose work betters the lives of those in underrepresented communities. 

Palma, who was in the foster care system as a child, spoke recently to Berkeley Social Sciences about the award and her work. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell us about yourself and your award selection.
Mellony Palma: I am a former foster kid, who grew up in Southern California. I believe that my selection for this award likely stems from my deeply personal and professional journey, intertwining my lived experiences with my dedication to advocacy and mentorship. My work, fueled by my own challenges as a former foster youth navigating abuse, neglect and systemic barriers, seeks to illuminate and address the gaps within the foster care and educational systems. 

Through research, mentorship, and direct support, I aim to create pathways for success for foster youth and student parents, advocating for systemic reforms and enhanced support structures. Much of my research focuses on the California child welfare system and its conversation about sex culture and its taboos. I hope to combat misinformation on the subject and mentor other nontraditional students in achieving their goals and dreams.

What is your reaction to winning this award?
Mellony Palma: I am profoundly moved and honored to receive this award. It's a powerful affirmation of the significance of my work and the impact it has on underrepresented and marginalized communities. This recognition not only validates my personal and professional sacrifices but also amplifies the voices and struggles of those I advocate for. It strengthens my resolve to continue this vital work, driven by the belief that transformative change is possible through dedication, research, and direct support.

Tell us more about your work in general.
Mellony Palma: My work is a fusion of personal experience and professional dedication aimed at supporting underrepresented communities, particularly former foster youth and student parents. By leveraging my own journey through adversity, I conduct research focused on systemic challenges within the foster-care system and advocate for reforms that can provide more stable, supportive environments. Beyond academia, I engage in hands-on mentorship, guiding students through the intricacies of academia and parenthood and facilitating access to essential resources. My approach is holistic, addressing immediate needs while striving for long-term systemic change.