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The Briar Patch | Why I left ‘higher’ education

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I was not a good college student.

I contended with a lot of personal challenges that, looking back on, I am amazed I came through. In the course of four years, one of my favorite aunties passed away, my father transitioned less than a year later, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer the year after my dad left, and I even lost my dog. Add riding the extreme highs of meeting my first love, and the deepest heartbreaking despair over the ending of that relationship, and somehow just graduating is still enough for me. I’ll take it.

I look back on all of this with some understanding, that I didn’t have then, of why I struggled so in my 20s. Bearing up was something you just did. However, I was absolutely experiencing trauma and operating in a place of continual emotional dysregulation for years. I didn’t even consider or know therapy was an option, nor was it suggested.

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And yet, I consider my college years to be some of the happiest times of my life. I loved attending my HBCU, Historically Black College and University.

Spelman thy name we praise,
Standards and honor raise,
We’ll ever faithful be
Throughout eternity.
May peace with thee abide …
—Excerpt from Spelman College Hymn

I entered Spelman College as an economics major and graduated with an art degree. Finding art and community through one semester of a drawing class changed the trajectory of my life. I loved the process of learning, the intellectual exchange of ideas, the space to create art, engaging with my professors and other students intergenerationally, the time spent just thinking and considering the possibilities of other perspectives in the world. And of course, the parties and HBCU bands — I can’t say that wasn’t a benefit. I had a lot of fun, and probably at times, way too much fun, despite the other turmoil I was dealing with.

At Spelman, there was protocol left from previous generations — we were required to attend weekly chapels, but the college brought in some of the most amazing speakers in the world. I took chapel for granted, I didn’t want to go, most of the time. But to this day, I am still in awe of sitting in the presence of the great Toni Morrison and hearing her talk about her novels, quite a few of which were required readings in my classes.

And I know, “how I got over” — to borrow from the great Mahalia Jackson gospel song — was through my predominately African American professors, who poured into us, sharing their knowledge and intellectual standards that were sprinkled with love, a very different type of social structure, governance system and engagement typical of a HBCU that is difficult to explain. Many of our professors protected us, their Black students, and invited us to their homes for a warm dinner or tea that included more dialogue and opportunities for intellectual engagement outside of the classroom. They treated us like family.

Because of these student experiences and my professors really pushing me through an emotionally tough matriculation, I am forever grateful to them for seeing me holistically and with humanity as a struggling young Black woman who needed firm nurturing and support.

My experience was so life affirming, I decided I wanted to be an artist-professor. I wanted to do the same thing for other students that my professors gifted me with. I also come from a large extended family of educators on all levels — early childhood, primary, secondary and university, professors and high school principals, college administrators, even as teachers in the field of educational technology. In part, teaching is my ancestral legacy.

I didn’t have a Plan B: I intended to spend my career making art and teaching. I went into heavy student loan debt to get a Master of Fine Arts Degree in studio art so I could teach on a college level. But about two years ago, I left higher ed in disgust after about seven years of teaching, after working at both a local HBCU and community college, burned out, disrespected and poor. Teaching seven, eight classes a semester and never making more than $30,000 a year, with super heavy art school debt. I did this in part because of caregiving — I honestly just could not mentally focus on advancing my career while tending to a sick relative.

I know instructors who teach more classes than I did: 10, 11, 12 per semester, eking out a living. Tell me how this remotely benefits students?

But I was also exploited, through the insidious drum beat of indoctrination that many of us believe — you know, that I chose this profession not to make money, but out of some higher noble purpose. Tell that one to your mortgage lender. All of this messaging parlayed through an administrator who makes 10 times the three and four credit hours I am paid to be in a classroom and excluding the free labor I am expected to donate, often without health insurance — to write the curriculum, syllabi, prepare lectures and grade course work, attend faculty meetings — all at the risk of pissing off the wrong administrator for daring to advocate for myself, or running the risk of having classes canceled days or even hours before a semester starts. And hopefully by now, readers will have noticed the lack of time for investing in students with any real quality time.

I pulled money out of my own account, thousands of dollars to do special projects with students, and it seems like I poured, and I poured, and I poured energy into a never satisfied, always complaining, always demanding toxic education system, which I liken to having collective borderline personality disorder. It is virtually unrecognizable as the same education and support I received as a student.

I didn’t have a Plan B, but for pure self-preservation, I walked away. No, I ran away.

I speak on this now, because I am shocked, really, by how many institutions have fallen in line so readily with this system of oppression. We desperately need a paradigm shift and deepening understanding of the true human value of education. You only need to read about my personal experience as a student to know that education at its core is a relational exchange. But it seems to have been transformed into a series of impersonal bank transactions with little regard for the people.

It is my belief that education in all its forms should be directly centered within the community, never above it. And I don’t believe that “higher” education is necessary for everyone in society to succeed. There are a lot of ways in which we can find learning that is appropriate for our needs. I am almost certain that I would not choose the path I did to become a professor.

But for those who go the way of college education in particular, I argue that staying relevant means anchoring part of any mission with an emphasis on — gasp! — the humanities, especially given the rise in artificial intelligence technology, or AI. Humans will need to learn how to be more human in the coming years.

Colleges and universities can get a jump start on this by evolving current policies so that faculty and staff have job stability and livable wages, and students are not exploited with high tuition costs and have access to a healthy faculty not strained to the breaking point.

The current system as it stands is not sustainable.

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One Response to “The Briar Patch | Why I left ‘higher’ education”

  1. Nora Chalfont says:

    Thank you, Cheryl: for your words and your presence in our Yellow Springs community as educator and editor of our weekly newspaper, The Yellow Springs News.

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