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Women of Color Scholars Program Recognizes Recent Ph.D. Graduates

June 1, 2017

The Office of Loans and Scholarships at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) recognized three recent Doctor of Philosophy graduates who participated in the Women of Color (WOC) Scholars Program: Mary Wong Cheng, Michele Watkins and Catherine E. Williams. Each scholar graduated in May 2017.

Started in 1988, WOC provides financial, intellectual and personal support to United Methodist women of color pursuing doctorates in religious studies at seminaries and universities across the U.S. With a four-year commitment from The United Methodist Church and the religious scholars, the primary goal of the program is to increase the number of women of color on faculty at United Methodist seminaries. The program is administered by GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships.

Mary Wong Cheng earned her doctorate in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Within the last year of her degree program, Cheng began work with United Methodist Women in New York. In her role as director of transformative education, Cheng manages programs focused on mission theology and faith and justice education.

“I hope to connect my academic work with my career by bringing greater clarity and academic research into use within the church,” said Cheng. “I want to help translate ‘academic speak’ to the laity.”

Michele Watkins received her Doctor of Philosophy in theology, ethics and history from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Watkins joined the faculty of Iliff School of Theology in January 2016 as the Gerald L. Schlessman Professor in Methodist Studies and assistant professor of Theology. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Catherine E. Williams completed her Ph.D. program in homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. A Forum for Theological Exploration Doctoral Fellow and Louisville Institute Dissertation Fellow, Williams’ work focused on non-mainstream preaching and bringing it into conversation with traditional preaching. Williams accepted a position on the faculty of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania as assistant professor of Preaching and Worship, effective July 1, 2017.

“Knowing I was accountable to this group within my denomination gave me a sense of pride and honor to be United Methodist, and to be increasingly intentional about the connection between my work and the church,” said Williams.

Each woman was introduced to WOC in different ways, however each express gratitude for the financial and moral support provided by the program throughout their doctoral journey. “Jeffrey Kuan, past member of the GBHEM Board of Directors and professor, recommended the program to me,” Cheng said. “I am thankful to him and GBHEM because the program has had a significant impact on my education and personal growth. One mentor asked, ‘how can we find our voice,’ which sent me on a path of self-discovery and exploration of who I am to become.”

“I first saw Women of Color mentioned in an AAR [American Academy of Religion] program booklet. After attending a meeting as a visitor, Dr. Rosetta Ross encouraged me to apply,” said Williams. “The program affirmed the work I was doing, and the mentoring meetings provided a safe place to explore ideas. It gave me confidence regarding the importance of my academic voice.”

Throughout the program, the women communicate regularly with the mentors and attend an annual academic update with mentors and fellow scholars. The access to the mentors, who are previous Women of Color Scholars, provides the scholars with wisdom and insight from women who have gone through the doctoral process and can understand their experiences.

“The value of Women of Color is the mentors who are accomplished scholars and theologians. Obtaining a Ph.D. is a lonely process and having the understanding from people who have once been in your shoes is encouraging,” explained Cheng. “Women of Color gave me the encouragement to bring my full self into my research and writing,” added Williams.

When asked what advice they would give to current and future WOC scholars, the overarching response was to maximize the time in the WOC program. “If you are an introvert like me and find the group experience intimidating, take advantage of opportunities for one-on-one conversations with mentors and the other scholars,” said Williams. “Remember that your worth is not dependent on your academic achievement. You will definitely encounter curve balls, so always remember to take care of yourself first,” added Cheng.

A California resident since childhood, Cheng earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis, her Master of Divinity from Golden Gate Baptist Seminary and a master’s degree in counseling from California State University, East Bay. Cheng began her process for ordination but has decided to postpone the process and focus on her current career path with United Methodist Women.

Watkins is a provisional elder in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference and currently appointed to the extension ministry, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century (SBC-21) as a member of the Academy of Interns. She earned her Bachelor of Science from Howard University and Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She later received a certification in non-profit management from Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.

Williams is originally from the Caribbean republic of Trinidad & Tobago. She received her undergraduate degree from Westminster Choir College, Rider University. She later earned her master’s degree from Palmer Theological Seminary, Eastern University. Williams was ordained as an elder this year within the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.

To learn more about the Women of Color Scholars Program, visit To help ensure that this invaluable resource is around for many years to come, consider providing an online gift to the Women of Color program.

About GBHEM: As the leadership development agency of The United Methodist Church, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s mission is to lead and connect the educational and ministerial life of the church. Every elder, deacon and licensed local pastor benefits from our training and candidacy programs. Many young adults find help in clarifying their vocation and God’s call on their lives through our leadership and discernment programs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.

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