The four years of undergraduate work at Cal State San Bernardino – two of them in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program – paid off for Fernando Sanchez.

In the fall, he will head to the San Francisco Bay Area, a Ph.D. student in the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Near Eastern Studies – one of the oldest (founded in 1864) and most distinguished in its discipline in the country.

Sanchez also is the recipient of the prestigious Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship, a four-year scholarship. Named in honor of one of the first Mexican American professors on the UC system, it is highly competitive and presented only to top admitted doctoral students.

Getting into the Berkeley Ph.D. program was his first choice, he said a few weeks before Commencement weekend, when he will be honored as the College of Social and Behavioral Science’s Outstanding Undergraduate student.  

Sanchez said he knew the interview with the Berkeley Near Eastern Studies Department would be challenging – let alone competitive – but he did have time to prepare for it, and worked with Isabel Huacuja Alonso, an assistant professor of history and his mentor in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program. She coached him through the interview process, talking about the questions he’d likely be asked, and how he should formulate his answers. And taking into account Sanchez’s research abilities, she said that would be his strength.

“You’ve done a lot more than a lot of undergrads, and even master’s students, who are applying, so really focus on that,” he recalled Alonso saying.

Sanchez, who graduated from Canyon Springs High in Moreno Valley, credits the foundation he received at CSUSB as playing a major role in getting into the Berkeley program. “It helped me immensely, in more ways that I can say.”

While at CSUSB, he was a contributor, then co-chief editor, for the history department’s History in the Making journal, which won the Gerald B. Nash History Journal First Prize both years he participated. The prize is the top award in the nation given by the Phi Alpha National History Honor Society, and writing and editing refined that aspect of his academic portfolio.

Sanchez’s two years in the MMUF program helped him improve and hone his research and presentation skills, which were also instrumental in preparing him for graduate school. Ryan Keating, associate professor of history and the MMUF program coordinator, made sure the fellows took advantage of all the opportunities the program had, which included numerous opportunities to present their research at competitions and conferences. Sanchez said there were times that it seemed repetitive to him, but he eventually saw the benefit.

“When I went into that interview with Berkeley, I felt that I could talk about everything so much more confidently, not just because of Dr. Alonso’s help, obviously, but because I had to talk about it so often, and had to condense everything into a two-minute talk,” he said.

And the history department faculty, he said, are a significant part of his success.

“When I came to Cal State San Bernardino, one of the first classes I had was history of the modern Middle East with Dr. (David) Yaghoubian,” Sanchez said. “He was just so charismatic, and he made the subject sound so interesting. And that, obviously, set me on the path to pursue a Ph.D. in that region.

“But not only that, every single professor in the history department that I’ve taken has been so incredibly helpful and so knowledgeable and so enthusiastic about teaching,” he said. “I really do think that Cal State San Bernardino has one of the best history departments.”

And he made it a point to mention the guidance give to him by his faculty mentor, Alonso, as well as Kate Liszka, associate professor of history and the university’s Benson and Pamela Harer Fellow in Egyptology.

Of Alonso, he said, “She really, in a lot of ways, made it possible for me to get into a Ph.D. program. She helped me develop my skills as a researcher and a speaker.”

He completed his thesis, “Farewell to the Lady: Umm Kulthum, MSA, ECA, and the creation of Aural Celebrity," under her guidance. In it, Sanchez argues that Umm Kulthum, a famous Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress, created a successful aural celebrity persona, not just through her powerful and moving singing voice, but also by strategically deploying Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA). By combining MSA and ECA in love and patriotic songs in strategic ways, he argues, Umm Kulthum was able to create an aural persona that could at once be personable and a respectable political figure.

Sanchez was a supplemental instructor for Liszka’s History 140 class, where he saw her passion for teaching. And as a research assistant for the department, he helped organize and checked data related to the excavation of ancient Egyptian artifacts for Liszka, who also is the director of the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition in Egypt.

Looking at what he’s accomplished at CSUSB, it’s clear that Sanchez, who will address fellow students and faculty at the History Department Graduation and Phi Alpha Theta Induction Ceremony on May 14, seized upon every opportunity that he could to achieve his academic goals.

And even if, technically speaking, the university isn’t a top-tier R-1 research institution, that doesn’t mean R-1 level opportunities don’t exist for CSUSB students, he said.

“Dr. Liszka’s research is so incredible, and we have RAFFMA, which has actual ancient Egyptian artifacts, which is super rare, because Egypt no longer allows archeological finds to leave the country,” Sanchez said. “You wouldn’t think a smaller state school would have these opportunities. But it’s kind of crazy to think that Cal State San Bernardino does. I can’t speak to other CSUs, obviously, but it really is incredible what we have here.”

And, having spoken to incoming students, he shared with them that they should take advantage of similar opportunities, which will help them shape the future that they see for themselves, much in the same way he did.

The university, he said, is “helping you define your future, it’s helping you to realize that there are opportunities available to you that you can take advantage of that will help you realize not just your potential, but also what you want to do in the future.”