By Lakeya Omogun

Walking Forward: Navigating the Academic Journey as a Black Woman

I think this is a great path, and also know you are highly qualified for assistant professor positions if one comes up that seems like a good fit.” 

That’s what my former professor replied to me after I emailed her my cover letter and curriculum vitae to help her write my postdoctoral application recommendation letters.  

I did not doubt that I was highly qualified for an assistant professor position, but I did doubt committing to a career in academia where my life, time, and mental health could potentially become negatively impacted by the labor-intensive and hierarchical nature of the field. 

My intersecting identities — Black, woman, and first-generation professor — in an academic setting would further negatively shape my work experience. The thought of joining a small population of about 4% of Black women professors whose work lives are commonly plagued by excessive workloads, free labor, systemic racism, extra diversity-related service work, and other racism-related stressors was far from appealing to me. 

Besides, I had spent the last five years completing my PhD at a research-intensive university in a red state during the Trump administration all while going through a bad break up. I only wanted to do one thing after graduation — breathe.  

So, I committed to applying to postdoctoral positions instead of faculty positions. I figured that a postdoc would give me both experience and the time to determine if a career as a professor was truly for me. 

I had also spent the summer before the last year of my PhD program calling friends and colleagues in both academia and industry sectors to learn about their work experiences. I took copious notes on my laptop during our conversations and realized that all jobs have their unique set of challenges.

Still, I had a solid plan.

I would simultaneously apply to postdoctoral and industry positions in case I did not get a postdoc. If both plans failed, then I would fully commit to rebuilding the nonprofit literacy organization that I founded and ran during my undergraduate years after I completed my PhD program.   

But God had other plans. 

• • •

I looked down at my phone. It was a little after 12pm. 

Should I go on my daily walk now or continue working on my dissertation? I thought to myself.

I opened my patio door to check the weather. Texas’ late December air was warm and sunny like I’d predicted. 

My career decision was still weighing heavily on me, and while it made sense to work on my dissertation, a walk along the lake under lush green trees would help me clear my mind. 

I grabbed my keys and headphones from the brown and white ceramic bowl near my front door. I rushed outside, started my car, and drove north on South Congress Avenue until I arrived at Zilker Park. 

About half a mile into my walk on the trail, a familiar voice called my name, “Lakeya?” 

I could not believe who it was — my dissertation chair.  

I had been living in Austin, Texas for almost five years. I had walked that trail so many times, yet it was my first time seeing her. 

The underlying factors that cultivated my doubts for applying to faculty professor positions were not foreign to her. I had cried many times in her office during my advising sessions. The lack of racial diversity in Austin. Questions about the legitimacy of my dissertation research, which focused on Nigerian immigrant youth identities, languages, and literacies. The end of my relationship. She knew about it all. 

I took off my headphones. We chatted for a bit. Then, she asked me, “How are the applications going?” 

“They’re going,” I sighed before I continued, “I just need to breathe. I just need to take some time to heal.” 

As a Black Caribbean woman, she had been navigating the academic waters for all of her career.  

She took off her sunglasses and looked me in the eyes, “Lakeya, you are a rockstar. You have so much going for you right now. I know you’ve been through a lot in these last few years. You’re going to continue to heal from your relationship, too ... but what I don’t want you to do is allow these hardships or this one situation to shape the trajectory of your life or your career. Give it a try. See if you like it.”

She went on to explain that a postdoctoral position would be just as intense as an assistant professor position but with fewer financial benefits and less professional autonomy. 

Several months prior to seeing my dissertation advisor on the trail that day, another professor at a different university shared several assistant professor positions with me via email. There was one that stuck out. It aligned with my research and teaching values, but the trauma that dwelled in my body from my PhD experience led me to archive her message.  

So, when I bumped into my dissertation chair on my walk that afternoon, I concluded that God was confirming that I should indeed apply. 

I was already praying and journaling about moving to the west coast, back to the east coast, or leaving the United States altogether. The assistant professor position that piqued my attention was on the west coast. 

I had begun to sense that Christ was leading me in that direction. 

• • •

The next morning, I drafted an email to the search committee. They told me that they had completed two rounds of interviews and had several candidates for consideration, but they would be happy to consider my materials.    

I emailed my dissertation chair to relay this message to her, secretly hoping that she would say that it was too late. She did not. Instead, she wrote me back, “Go ahead and apply. Let me know when your materials are uploaded. They will be very interested in you once they review your file!”

So, I applied.  

Several days later, the search committee invited me for a Zoom interview. 

Shortly after the start of the new year while vacationing in Boston for the Christmas holiday, I opened my laptop to an email inviting me to be one of the finalists for the position along with details to prepare for my job talk. 

So many thoughts were going through my mind. Lord, how can I juggle all these parts of my life at once? Writing my dissertation. Preparing for my job talk. Adulting. 

• • •

Two days later, I took a train from Boston to Harlem, New York — the city where I produce some of my best writing and work. I rented a beautiful brownstone on AirBnb. The city’s beautiful history, familiarity, and walker-friendly streets would give me the creative inspiration needed to prepare my pre-recorded job talk. 

God provided so much grace over those days — almost as if he’d taken me by the hand and led the way. I watched and analyzed sample job talks. I outlined my own job talk. I practiced it in the mirror and on Facetime with friends. I was immersed in a community of support. My family, friends, and trusted colleagues called, emailed, and texted me. They prayed for me, offered support, and suggested tips. 

Even with all this support, my body still carried the heavy weight of being a Black woman in academia. Did I really want to go through an advanced version of what I experienced as a doctoral student?

My doubts subsided during my virtual campus visit with the university. Less interested in poking holes in my research or gauging how “intellectual” I was, the community of faculty, staff, students, and administrators exhibited so much warmth, care, and authenticity.  

I felt peace. So much peace. 

• • •

The following month, I was waiting to board my flight to Nigeria when I received a call from the university’s dean offering me to join the faculty, staff, and students at the university.

While on the plane, I opened my journal to the page titled “job prayer list.” I scanned my bullet-pointed list of prayers and smiled when I came across “on the west coast” and “cares for my mental health.” 

Even amidst all my doubts, God answered my prayers. He strategically used people, especially my dissertation chair, to give me clarity as well. 

I’ll be starting my second year as an assistant professor next month. I wish that I could say that the inevitable perils that plague Black women professors did not plague me in my first year, but that is not true. 

Still, I remain anchored in the truth that I am exactly where Christ has called me to be. This truth alone keeps me focused on the greater mission at large — to glorify him through my research, teaching, and service. 

My dissertation chair — who has become a dear friend and mentor — continues to be a strong sense of support. I reflect on her leadership and intense training, which did not always feel good as a doctoral student, but has become a blessing. I stand on the strong foundation that she provided and can honestly say that I move through academia with both wisdom and strength because of it. 

She, along with several other trusted women of faith in academia, provide me guidance and mentorship that goes beyond traditional faculty advice. It is a perspective that no academic training can provide — God’s grace, wisdom, and promises are more than enough to navigate this academic journey as a Black woman. I keep this in mind when the culture of academia tempts me to compete with my faith values. 

It is no mistake that I have become a professor.

In fact, since I have started this role, Christ has slowly been shaping my heart to support first-generation college students like myself. 

I’m not sure what the future looks like for my career, but I’m forever grateful that I took that afternoon walk and bumped into my dissertation chair that day. 

 

Photo by WOCinTech at Nappy.co

About the Author

Lakeya Omogun, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at The University of Washington. She is also a creative writer and speaker. Her artistic nature is infused in all her roles, which have one common goal — to shift static ideas about identity.

Her hybrid identity as a Nigerian and Black American coupled with her experience as a former middle school teacher influenced her current research project, which explores Black African immigrant youth schooling experiences in the United States. She focuses on how their new experiences with race in America (re)shapes their identity, language, and culture.

Her creative writing and public speaking have fostered public conversations and social impact in relation to identity and race, reaching over 180,000 readers and listeners. She has been featured in ESSENCE Magazine and ZORA Magazine. She has also spoken on TEDx and NPR.

Outside of work, Lakeya loves to visit her favorite people and new places. She enjoys hitting the gym or going for a peaceful walk. When she is not on the move, she is either trying a new recipe or slowly moving through a TV series. She likes to think that she has mastered anti-binge-watching shows. In fact, she considers it an art.

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