As another academic year nears its end, I am grateful for the many wonderful faculty men and women who serve college students both inside and outside of the classroom day after day. The media is full of stories of those who abuse their position and privilege but usually silent about the many faculty who come to campus each day with the intention of working hard, researching well, and investing in the education of the students in their lecture halls and labs. Though certainly in the minority, many of these honorable faculty are Christ followers — folks who see their presence in the university as a call from God and invest there accordingly. I had the great privilege of spending time with women faculty this year in different places around the country. As I share some of these stories from the road with you, I hope you will find them encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. (Real identities are hidden for the sake of privacy.)
In the fall, I met with a group of faculty women of color on a large urban commuter campus. The majority of the students at this school are non-white first generation college students who work — often multiple jobs — to help support their families while attending school. I heard stories about students who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. I heard stories about students struggling to jump through administrative hoops — tasks that were all the more challenging because these students didn’t know a single person who had attended college. One student, when asked what she planned to do after college, responded, “Oh, I think maybe I’ll be a doctor. That seems kind of cool.” The faculty woman telling me this story said, “I thought to myself, ‘What kind of home do you grow up in that you don’t know you have to go to med school to be a doctor?’ and, yet, this is the type of student we have at our school. They start off in a very different place.” Because of this reality, the faculty women I met with spend a considerable amount of time helping students navigate the system. They often provide food at study sessions. They parent, troubleshoot, counsel, and advocate — all in addition to lecturing, advising, researching, and serving on various committees.
One professor grew up nearby in an immigrant family attending public school on a free-and-reduced-lunch status. She was accepted to this university and promptly failed her first statistics course. She went on to graduate and attend graduate school, earning a PhD from Columbia. She has returned to her alma mater and now teaches the very statistics course she failed. She stands up on the first day of class and tells her story — then she tells these students that they can pass. They have what it takes. They can do it because she did it. She has failed only one student in nine years of teaching the course.
Another professor — also with an impressive educational pedigree — tells the story of recently moving into the low-income neighborhood near the university with her young family. After reading the statistics of what happens in low-performing schools when families committed to strong public education move into the neighborhoods, she and a few others in her fellowship group decided God was calling them to do this. With tears in her eyes, she wondered at what cost. Would her children’s education suffer because of their desire to see others served?
I met two other women that afternoon with equally admirable academic accomplishments who are investing in this challenging place. I wondered what their parents thought about their positions, especially considering all the time and money spent on a prestigious education. And yet all of them were convinced that God had not equipped or called them to teach and do research at an elite school, but to be in this place investing in this underserved population, inviting them to imagine and work toward all that they could do and be.
Being women of color, these professors have their own hurdles to overcome in the university (read more about this in Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia
). There are perceptions and prejudices from peers and from students, extra committees to serve on, higher stakes in publishing and performance, and more burdens still. But they see themselves in their students and so they persevere, hoping to make the academic experience a bit easier and, perhaps, more rewarding than their own.
In these visits, my intentions are to hear faculty stories, understand the particularities of their professional situations, and learn what is necessary for women to flourish in the academy. I hope to bring this knowledge back to my team so we can consider what Women in the Academy and Professions might offer academic women by way of encouragement and support. Yet I realized along the way how much I was benefitting personally from the experience. It is so encouraging to see how the gospel has shaped these women. It is faith-fortifying to see bright, amazing women giving their lives in service of God and neighbor in a challenging place, observing that the “joy of the Lord is [their] strength.”
These women are my heroes. They are godly. They are smart. They are passionate. They are winsome. They are strong.
They are world changers.
May God add to their numbers!