26 June 2017

Seeking & Finding My Dream Job

Just over five years ago I decided to leave the comfortable, challenging, well-paid job that I enjoyed to start prepping for the job that I wanted. It was a step away from the familiar non-profit sector and back in the direction of higher education.

I fell in love with higher ed while a student and paid participant in the process. Graduate assistantships, student jobs, and on-campus civic engagement of every sort gave me an insider view that many students miss.

To be honest, my post-secondary student career was a wholly non-traditional one. In just under 10 years my list of schools was as long as a common criminal’s rap sheet. I’d been everywhere and studied almost everything before completing two degrees in graphic design: Biology, English, Fashion Design, Fine Art, Art history, History, and Photography (that’s most of them).

In one brief stint as a Nutrition and Dietetics major—I was then employed working with people afflicted with HIV/AIDS and wanted to be part of the solution to the epidemic—I spent nearly two semesters at a Historically Black [College or] University (HBCU). It was the worst administrative experience of my life. While I excelled in my academic courses, from Biology and nutrition, to Literature, English, and History, every interaction with school administration was a hindrance.

The Paperwork Logjam Cycle

Image Source:Pixbay
The administration, in being unable to read my hand-written undergraduate application place me in the Fine Arts Major, even though I wrote in Nutrition and Dietetics on my hand-filled form. I spent my entire 1.5 semesters at the school attempting to chase down the two deans needed to sign off on my change of major. At the time, the rule was that the dean of each school had to sign off on a change-of-major form, although I never chose art as a major, and this was an error made by the admissions office. So I spent weeks emailing to schedule an appointment with no reply. Whenever I visited the fine arts department, for the signature, the doors were locked and I could not gain entrance to the appropriate offices.

I spent a day a week, for close to seven months ping-ponging back and forth between the admissions office secretary to the art school with no joy.

Internship Woes

Dietetics majors who want to become licensed practitioners must complete a 6mos to 1-year-long, full time (unpaid) internship. I decided that to get a jump on my field and to learn more about specializations I would choose to intern each summer until the time of my mandatory posting. I found a Bio-Chem summer research post at a prestigious regional institute and began my application process—this was at the start of my 2nd semester.

By this time I had had at 2 courses in my major (one taught by our dean and another by a long-standing assistant professor), as well as Biology and bio-chemistry with an accomplished researcher in the science department…the thing that distinguished him in my mind was that he kept applying pressure for me to switch majors and apply my analytical mind to his field of science. I never did. Instead I reached out to these three people, all of whom I had already impressed in the classroom—for recommendations for the summer internship. Three were needed and who better than these professors who had seen what I can do in the classroom? Bio-man came through aces…writing my praiseful note with haste.

However, in the department where I thought I’d distinguished myself (being the only student to garner an A in both challenging courses, and the one who participated in the discussions of health and wellness both in and out of the class with my professors) there were crickets. Both profs claimed a willingness to write the recco, and both let me down. I gave them a three-week deadline while knowing that the actual deadline for applying to the internship was 4 weeks. Still, each week when I arrived in their office suite I got excuses. On the last day before the (real) mailing deadline, a Friday (I decided I’d need to hand –deliver my application, an inconvenience, but worth it if I was selected), the dean of my program sat across from me in her office and uttered these words, “why don’t you write the recommendation and I’ll sign it for you,” Well…. Hmm… I was speechless. If that was the general protocol I could have done that 4 weeks prior and submitted an early internship application.

Making that move led me to a polar opposite educational experience.
At UB, I felt supported & became engaged, &interned often. I'm still
engaged in the community life of the school where I completed my
Bachelors and Masters degrees.
Baltimore's Mt Vernon, near my alma mater.
That afternoon I chose to walk home and think about my life choices. The 4 mile trek gave me ample time to assess what had just happened to me and to come up with a plan. Four blocks from my apartment I walked in to the University of Baltimore and completed an undergraduate admissions application, before heading home. I never returned to the HBCU. I undoubtedly failed the 4 classes in which I was enrolled at the time.

From that day on I never had a good thing to say about the school that drove me away. If ever I heard someone talk of the school my two-cents was what they got…and it was an earful...that it was a terrible place doing a disservice to young black people who want an education...doing their enrolled students an unforgivable injustice, etc. My conversation about the place was always 100% positively negative!

Above are two of the major incidents, far from the majority of things that made for a challenging school experience. These are a few others:
English 101 lecturer was a recent graduate of said HBCU, he began his first lecture by asking us what we thought Tupac meant my lyrics in a hip-hop song (of which I’d never heard or listened to—or wanted to know anything about). I figured that if this young man—who spoke comfortably in the local vernacular wanted to teach the urban version of Freshman Comp, he would do well not having me in his class…

(Being not versed in Hip-Hop culture, I didn't’ know that Tupac Shakur was a popular rapper who came from the Baltimore, and I certainly didn’t know lyrics to any of his chart-topping hits)

I dropped that class in favor of another one in which my peer students were so far behind in basic grammar and punctuation that it was impossible for me to understand content when peer-reviewing papers (and the new prof loved having us peer review everything). I got the reputation of being mean…

In an effort to bring the majority of students up to college-level achievement, the university took the surprising step of mandating 4 levels of general education English/Writing courses. Completion of these did not culminate in graduation unless every student also sat and passed an additional exam. As an avid writer, reader, and lover of language I was appalled at this, and was upset to learn that I could not sit that exam early...

Everyone in my world history class (bar 3, myself and my study group) cheated on every single test quiz, and exam. No one was ever caught or reprimanded, and oddly enough none but us three got As in the course… In applying to join the student newspaper–literally, a dozen times—no replies were given to either my emails or phone calls…

As a matter of fact, whenever I called or emailed any administrative department I was either transferred twice then hung-up-on, or placed on hold for 20 minutes, AND my messages were never responded to, period.

Then about five years ago, I actually heard myself for the first time. Disparaging a place that honed the talents of people like Dr. Charles Drew. Disparaging the place that thousands of young people choose every year based on an historical relevance and family tradition. Disparaging the place was doing nothing to solve any problem or make any positive change. Not even in my head where I had compartmentalized the terrible experience of the school and only trotted it out on special occasions. If I really wanted to rail against the injustice, then I needed to be at the place, making an actual difference for the students.

Instead of a nay-sayer I needed to become a yay-sayer for the students at the institution and be that person who answered their emails, their phone calls, their questions when they found no one else who’d take the time.

Not only could I become an asset to the students, but also to the university as a whole; using my expertise and ingenuity garnered from a lifetime in the nonprofit sector, offering them any piece of my skill and experience to enhance the university.

The Die was Cast

So, that’s how it happened. I made the decision to seek out employment where a younger me would not spend her undergraduate career. The post at this HBCU became an obsession for me. In half-a-decade, I read the job postings, and kept an eye on university news as well as the Higher Education Commission annual statistics on public and private universities. I combed through reports and bookmarked news of promising achievement. If I wanted to become a useful part of the community then I’d need to know what I was getting into.

What I found was that between my undergraduate experimentation and today, the school was making strides to right its wrongs, without my intervention. The place was on a trajectory that didn’t need me as the catalyst. The new university president had implemented simple reforms like:

+ customer service training for new and long-time staff,

+ town hall meetings to speak and listen with students,

+ an emphasis on raising the research profile of the school.

All of these things seem to be effective and are ever-so-slowly restoring the century-plus-old institution to its legacy. Today, I literally can’t read about higher ed innovation and accomplishment without seeing the name of my current employer or its president. When I ask students and staffers about the challenges of being here today, they give diverse, thought-provoking answers; not often do they simply site administrative roadblocks when trying to complete basic tasks. To those who do, I offer my assistance and phone number. Who knows, maybe I can help

Challenges, Different

Today, I sit in my office—nearing a year in my tenure—and feel that everyday I’m making a more positive experience for students and my professional peers. The challenges here are numerous...and I see them clearly from an inside staffer perspective. The thing that is newest to me is the culture, of not just an HBCU, but also the culture of a state government entity. It thrives on status quo, and evolves slowly.

In my department, on my team, and in encounters with faculty I see the vision that this HBCUs new president has. It’s not just a polish of the image, it’s a wholesale renaissance. I know that my contribution to this vision will be constructive. I know that I will work daily to continue the trajectory toward excellence and service to the deserving students who come here to learn. I just hope that I’m strong enough to see it through.

My ire and desire brought me to my dream job, and it’s better than I’d hoped it could be, and at the same time more challenging…if that makes any sense.

For now…Loving my job at my first HBCU.

(Plus, it's a beautiful place to work!)