Five years ago, I did the unthinkable. I abruptly quit my job, gave up a very lucrative six-figure salary, and applied to PhD programs. At the time, I felt very uncertain and apprehensive about my decision. But, I knew that I could not possibly work another ten years in “comfortable positions,” even if I was doing meaningful work in healthcare and social service organizations. The persistent feeling that I needed to do more led me to complete the stressful process of applying to PhD programs. To my surprise, I received an acceptance offer from each of the schools that I applied to that year. While I wondered what it would be like to attend an Ivy League university, I knew that my heart was set on continuing my education with CUNY.
When I first started my PhD studies, I immensely enjoyed all of the new subject matter I was learning. However, I would frequently have random discussions with other doctoral-level Black and Latinx students from various disciplines, and invariably the discussions would shift to how we often felt isolated and voiceless not only by the lack of diversity among faculty, students, and administrators, but also by the course offerings and the selected scholars for “required readings.” Although popular terms like inclusivity, diversity and equity were used in regular conversation with other students when we discussed our experiences, when these same buzz words were used by colleges and universities, I often felt unimpressed and annoyed by the lack of action and accountability behind the words. My work with the Futures Initiative changed that narrative. The collaborative and independent projects I undertook at the Futures Initiative empowered me to believe that I could be a change agent in higher education and not merely an observer or commentator of what is wrong in academia.
Conveniently, my tenure with the Futures Initiative coincided with my early years of joining the adjunct faculty at Brooklyn College and NYU. With the Futures Initiative, often referred to as a “think and do tank,” I had the opportunity to apply some of the ideologies and practices I was learning from our weekly collaborative meetings with a new cohort of undergraduate students each semester. The mere design and energy of our small meetings, as well as our public facing events, triggered me to action. For example, I challenged myself to co-design an innovative syllabus with my students that included their ideas about readings, lectures and grading. In another course, I focused on shifting the power and discussion in the classroom from the instructor to the student with greater use of think-pair- share exercises. In all of the courses I taught, I abandoned the practice of requiring students to purchase expensive textbooks in favor of using open educational resources. Likewise, I replaced traditional rubrics like midterm and final exams with journaling, peer feedback sessions and group presentations. My collaborative work with HASTAC Scholars from Digital Fridays and Scholar Spotlights also sparked ideas for small actions of how to undo some of the accepted practices and beliefs that I had consciously and unconsciously picked up over the years. While I sometimes felt overwhelmed and burned out from some of my responsibilities, my heart always did a happy dance when a student shared how much they enjoyed our class.
In thinking about my various roles in higher education over the years, and specifically within CUNY, I realize that ultimately I want students to be reminded that they belong. Sometimes, this goal is achieved simply by including non-traditional scholars on a reading list that reflects the diversity of students and their experiences. In other instances, it means recognizing the social determinants that impact academic success and retention. I include information about available social services (on-campus and off-campus) on the last page of all syllabi for courses I teach. I also recognize that for many students, particularly students of color that are attending college, my mere presence as a Black woman constitutes the idea that there is a place for them in higher education.
Due to my own experiences in higher education, I have spent a great deal of time mentoring students and challenging myself to make sure students of color don’t feel isolated or invisible on campus. My new role with the Futures Initiative and my more recent role as an elected Steering Committee Member with the Doctoral and Graduate Students’ Council (DGSC) has reminded me of the importance of ensuring higher education is inclusive and equitable not just of various racial backgrounds, but also inclusive of diverse experiences and thoughts. Similar to my work in the classroom, with each new cohort of HASTAC Scholars, I developed programming and projects that encouraged scholars to reimagine a more diverse, inclusive and equitable version of higher education. As I reflect on my own experience of simultaneously being a student, scholar, teacher and parent, I no longer question why I am pursuing a PhD or my role in higher education. I realize I made a commitment to pursue a PhD for the public good. As I continue to educate myself, I will maintain my responsibility to educate and empower others.