This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Mecca K. Terry holds a bachelor’s degree in Law & Society, master’s degrees in Criminal Justice and in Human Services, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Criminal Justice. Teaching criminal justice courses for the past 13 years, Mecca has taught courses in traditional and online classroom settings. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first introduction to obtaining a position in higher education was when I was a graduate student at a university in New Jersey. I was at the conclusion of my Criminal Justice Master’s program when I was approached by the assistant dean to apply for the part-time lecturer position within the department. Although honored, I was apprehensive about the position as I never thought about teaching, except for when I was a child teaching my stuffed animals and dolls their ABCs.
When I was approached, I knew that I just wanted my master’s degree, nothing more, nothing less. The assistant dean saw something in me that I did not see at the time. After graduating in May at the age of 22, I started teaching my first course that fall at the university. The course was called “Police and Society.” You can imagine the excitement and anticipation of teaching my first course! From the standpoint of being an African American female and first-generation college student, I was elated!
After meeting with a lead professor of the department, I was given my classes, shown a website from which to choose my course text, and sent on my way. I received no training, no sample syllabus—nothing! I was left on my own to develop my course, and I did to the best of my ability. Most of the classes I taught were early morning Saturday classes. Although a challenging time to teach for some, I enjoyed motivating students to participate in the lesson regardless of the time of day. I taught a wide range of criminal justice courses on various levels of the degree plan for about three years until my “contract ended.” I was never given a reason why I was not rehired; nor did I receive notification that I was not going to be renewed.
There was no form of communication regarding future course offerings. Nothing! My reviews were always great from both students and my supervisor. I recall reaching out to the assistant dean for some explanation. She responded that several adjuncts were let go. She offered no reason why they had not extended more classes to teach. This assistant dean also did not explain why, for months, she had ignored several emails from part-time lecturers about our concerns.
From University to Community College
My experience with higher education took another turn for me when I began teaching at a local community college. Before being hired, I remember receiving a phone call from the department secretary informing me that I had received an adjunct position at the college. I was excited but taken aback with the conversation that ensued:
She asked, “Are you African American?”
I responded hesitantly, “Yes.”
She then stated, “I know that was not appropriate, but I am excited that the department hired an African American, and being that you are a female makes it even better!”
At the time, I was seeking teaching opportunities, so the question and statement did not bother me. It reminded me of a summer job I took at a mall back in high school. Upon being hired, the supervisor stated that the store had to hire a certain number of African Americans. I figured that maybe the college also was seeking diversity and needed to meet a quota that I helped to fill.
I had been working at the college for some years when I was not offered any additional teaching opportunities. I reached out to the department secretary (who was in charge of sending out correspondence to adjuncts every semester) to speak with her about upcoming teaching opportunities. The secretary, also an African American woman, said that the dean thought that she had shown me favoritism by assigning me courses every semester. This was untrue. I applied every semester like every other adjunct, and some semesters I was not assigned classes. After having a deeper conversation with the secretary, she informed me that she believed the dean did not want me there. I was the only African American adjunct in the department. There was only one full-time African American lecturer. He was retiring, and they had no intentions on replacing him. I reached out to the dean on several occasions and tried to have several meetings with him, but it did not happen. I began to believe that the secretary’s analysis was correct. Instead of dwelling on the situation, I counted it as a loss and moved forward.
I have been teaching for over ten years. I have taught at universities, colleges, community colleges, and even online! I applied for a full-time lecturer position at a university that I taught at before. Formally, I taught their freshmen orientation course and thoroughly enjoyed it. For this position, they were looking for a candidate with online teaching experience. I did excellent on the phone interview, according to the dean and faculty who were a part of my interview. I was invited to do an in-person interview. I was nervous, but confident as interviewees had to present a topic for twenty minutes. I aced my interview! I knew I did because the dean invited me to go to the new campus open house alongside another faculty member. At the open house, we were to talk to students and parents, introduce the criminal justice program, and answer any questions about the curriculum. I was told that they had one more person to interview, but the decision would be made by July 1st.
By July 12th, I had not heard from the university, so I reached out to the dean. He gave me the typical HR response that someone would reach out to me. One of the faculty members on my interview panel did contact me and what he revealed to me was astonishing.
He stated, “Ms. Terry, you did great on your phone interview and in-person interview. I just knew we would offer you the position.”
I stated, “What does that mean?”
He replied, “The panel chose three people to conduct in-person interviews with. First interviewee was a Mexican male. He did great too, but the interviewing panel said they couldn’t understand him because of his accent. I don’t know how when he was a well published speaker and lecturer. The second was you, Ms. Terry, and the last was a Caucasian woman. She did good too, but her engagement was not as good as yours and the first candidate. From a faculty member’s perspective, I feel that they did not want an African American in the lecturer position. The dean believed the Caucasian candidate could relate more to the students. They offered her the position.”
After having this conversation, I was distraught, angry, and confused. I later learned that she declined the offer. The next step was for them to offer the position to me, but they did not. Instead, they closed the position and re-opened it! After being in an adjunct role for ten years, I thought this position was my big break. I do believe that the dean was going to offer me the position, but after interviewing the Caucasian candidate, he went with her instead. I definitely feel the dean’s decision was race-related and not based on the quality of the interview. In addition, she had no online teaching experience, which was one of the main qualifications of the position. It took me some time to process it and why it happened the way it did. I was reminded that as a woman, an African American woman, I will ALWAYS have to fight for a seat at the table. However, I now have a new perspective that I will not fight for a seat at the table but will create my own table and opportunities.