Thirty-four years ago, after two semesters at tiny St. Ed’s University and one semester at giant University of Texas, I decided to leave school. My course choices made about as much sense as if I had chosen them from slips of paper drawn from an empty mayonnaise jar. Radio, Television, Film and Swedish. Psychology and Photography. I did an internship at a crisis call-in center led by a large, bearded man named Hobbit. I tried out for the school modern dance company and had a French IV class with one other student as we sat in two hardback chairs in front of a massive wooden desk in Brother Hunt’s office as he read to us, in French, from some ancient book I don’t recall. I actually fell asleep in that class. More than once.
The reason I left was, of course, for love. I had fallen in love and no amount of time in the chemistry study group I had started could keep me focused on my course work. So when the Fall semester of 1978 was done, so was I. My then-boyfriend and I set up housekeeping in an adorable little Arts and Crafts cottage in South Austin and I found work as a Hallmark card shop manager. Life, as I would know it, began.
Let me be perfectly clear at this point: I did not grow up dreaming that I’d go to college, quit, get married, become pregnant–twice–then get divorced before I was thirty. But that is what happened. Once I left school, my path went screaming off in a very different direction. I possibly thought I’d “go back”; when the kids were older, when we had more money, when the time was right. It never happened.
Finally though, after several years of single-parenting and working as many jobs as I could, I decided to take the plunge and try to go back to school. I started with the local community college. The career counselor was someone I knew from church and after a long conversation, he directed me to a college called Charter Oak, which at the time was a degree granting institution. I could take the credits I had, amass more from other colleges and they would grant me the degree. I scheduled a meeting with a representative at Charter Oak State College. That appointment was shorter and more to the point: Try the University of Connecticut’s Bachelor of General Studies program. So, on to UConn and a visit with the Admissions rep there. She was very nice and suggested that since I already had some undergraduate credits, I should look into starting at the community college. I had officially been sent in a circle. I was making these appointments between full-time jobs, part-time jobs, picking up kids, dropping off kids, dealing with an ex. The furthering of my education would have to be more easily accessible than this.
Frustrated, I went home and tucked my transcripts and notes into a manila folder and put my quest on the back burner for a few more years. Then one day, into the elementary school computer lab where I was a paraprofessional, came a flyer for a program in Springfield, Massachusetts at Cambridge College. They had a Master’s program that didn’t require my having a bachelor’s degree. This could be interesting. It was focused on adult learning and the courses were in the evenings and weekends. I could complete it within two or three years. It had been some time since my more frustrating foray into education, so I was newly enthusiastic. In December 1999, I went up to the information session and took lots of notes. My fiancé said, “That time is going to pass anyway, you might as well be getting a degree.” So I enrolled. My classes began in January 2000.
As a result of the information session, I learned one important thing: Since the program I was enrolling in was a competency-based program, I would not be earning an actual bachelor’s degree. I also knew that not earning a bachelor’s would keep me from being a certified teacher in Connecticut. But I had my eye on a different job—technology coordinator. At the time, certification wasn’t required and I knew that having a Master’s in Education would be a step up that ladder. This time I had a plan and I created a schedule that would ultimately lead me to a degree and a satisfying and rewarding career. I enjoyed going back to school. And when I walked across that Boston stage in June of 2002 to shake the hands of our commencement speaker Al Gore, I already felt satisfied and rewarded. I had always been a jack-of-all-trades, but now I was a Master in one–Education.
As it turned out, I didn’t get the position I was after in the public school I worked in, but a year later, after being asked to run a student LEGO robotics program for a regional educational agency, I was offered a job doing professional development for them. In addition to teaching teachers about technology integration, I was asked to manage several student programs. Soon, I began coordinating all of the agency’s student grant programs, which totaled about 1.5 million dollars. I developed the programs and wrote the grants in addition to managing the programs with the staff that I hired. Through my multicultural education work at the agency, I collaborated on a project with the director of Education in the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut office. From that relationship, I applied to and was accepted for the ADL training to be a diversity trainer. In August of 2008, I made a career choice and left the educational agency, which made me available to accept an offer to teach English as an adjunct at the very community college where I had begun my road back to a degree.
Over the last four years, I have taught Developmental English at the college. I have always felt a connection to this school—years ago I taught a writing course in their “Kids On Campus” program— so I sought out ways to become more involved. I volunteered to serve on the committee to review the General Education requirements and I participated when possible in departmental meetings to review goals and outcomes, assess textbooks or score student exemplar papers. I attended campus meetings and social events; more because I liked to than I had to. And when the President spoke one year at the All-campus meeting about including “Beautiful Thoughts” as an initiative, I believed that this was a place to which I could contribute.
Occasionally, I would apply for full-time positions that I felt qualified for. One was a long shot, others turned out to have in-house candidates already lined up. Two years ago, I was called by a colleague who asked me to send in my application for a position coordinating a grant. I made it all the way to the interview with the President and two committee members, my colleague included. They hired another last-minute candidate. After that I decided–no more applications! I chose to be satisfied doing my adjunct teaching. It wasn’t a stretch to do that. I loved it and eagerly looked forward to my one or two classes per semester. It was gratifying, too, as last spring I received an award for Excellence in Adjunct Teaching. Being nominated by one’s peers is as heartwarming as people say. I felt like a member of the community.
And then, this past May, I was again approached and asked to fill a position to coordinate one of four student grant programs in the Bridge to College Department. During the previous semester I had been working for one of the other programs (also a position I was suggested for). Given my experience and successes in student programs and the fact that I had gotten to know a little bit about the department, I was cautiously hopeful. My goal of becoming a full-time member of the college was about to happen. I could be an integral member of the community and work with colleagues that I had grown to admire and quite honestly, enjoy. And even better, since I had been out of regular work for four years, the prospect of health benefits was exciting. My husband and I fantasized about the medical appointments we would make after I was officially hired. I accepted the position.
In June, my credentials were submitted to the President. A request for my bachelor’s degree transcripts came via email and I responded that they already had my complete transcripts. Further consideration was required. For over a month, no one, not even the Bridge to College director, could tell me when we would know the outcome of this scrutiny. My formal hiring date continued to be elusive, even though I attended meetings about where my office would be, what my training schedule would look like and which additional responsibilities I would have.
Then, on July 2nd, in response to an inquiry email I sent to HR, I was informed that, “… the college will not be pursuing the grant funded Educational Assistant Community College Scholars position with you at this time. As you are aware, it requires a Bachelors’ degree. Your file has been reviewed on multiple occasions by multiple individuals and it has been determined that you do not have the required degree.” I have never had a bachelor’s degree and I have never represented to anyone that I had one, but I had a Master’s degree. And years of experience in coordinating student programs. I wasn’t getting the job? I was stunned.
It gets worse.
It occurred to me that, after all this scrutiny, there was a very real possibility that since I did not get the program coordinator job, I might not be able to teach anymore, either. If I did not get an administrative position that I was over-qualified for, it would only follow that there would be some concern about my teaching. (Even though I had received contracts to teach two summer courses.) It was suggested that I contact the Dean of Academic Affairs. Although warm and supportive it was she who told me—in no uncertain terms– that I would not be teaching there anymore.
What a blow. A double-whammy, even. The job I was offered, accepted and had actually begun had been ripped out from underneath me. On top of that I wouldn’t be able to teach, or from what I understood, do anything else at the college. (Afterwards, I had several conversations with other administrators and faculty that echoed this same clear message.) I suddenly felt like I was a pariah.
The administration decided that I did not meet the requirements for the school and they could not have me in such a position in case they were audited. In my search to make sense of this decision, I wrote to the State Board of Regents (the governing body for all the state and community colleges). My question to them was to clarify which state statute requires the bachelor’s degree that prevented me from being hired. I spent the better part of a Sunday morning searching the Connecticut state web site looking for such a statute—I couldn’t find one. I also asked if this was a singular campus policy or does it prevent me from teaching elsewhere.
In the meanwhile, I wrote to my own Human Resources department to request a letter in writing describing the process by which I was terminated. After several attempts, I received this reply:
“You haven’t been “dismissed” or “terminated”. You lacked the required degree to be considered for the position in the Bridge to College Office. Your adjunct contract is ending with the course as they always do. As [we] understand the situation, your lack of a Bachelors Degree, and, more importantly, your lack of the college credits necessary to earn such degree has caused us to question whether you are adequately prepared to teach as an adjunct.”
If I thought I might get some assistance from my Human Resources department, by the end of that email I was advised to channel all communication through the union rep to avoid a union complaint. The union rep spoke to the HR department of his own accord and not on my behalf, so for me, it just made matters worse. As if they could get any worse.
During July, my last month at the college, I focused on teaching the two courses I still had and worked with the colleagues that I had become friends with (and not dwelling on the fact that “my replacement” would be hired soon). The people with whom I worked were unflagging in their support. It was a tonic. But it did lead me to wonder about a couple of things. For example, I wondered why I wasn’t approached at the beginning, in the spirit of community or collegiality, to collaborate on a way to address the technicality of the missing degree. I could look into getting one while I started the job. It also made me wonder why it took so long to question whether or not I was “adequately prepared”; my credentials have been on file for the last four years and they were reviewed each time I applied for a position. I’ve been evaluated by my department chair on a regular basis and have received only positive evaluations. By my students, too. This is all on record. Questioning whether or not I am adequately prepared may have been reasonable four years ago, but not now.
And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did call the union rep; to ask about the credential requirements, nothing more. But in the two conversations I’ve had with him (he called me once to tell me he had spoken to HR—after the fact), practically the only thing he could exclaim over and over is how the lack of a bachelor’s degree is “unheard of!” I get it. It’s unheard of. I can’t believe that I am the only one in Connecticut who has non-traditional credentials.
I looked into the Bachelor’s degree thing, too. At Charter Oak, UConn and Cambridge. (Whoa…deja vu!) The consensus, after the “why would you do this now?” remark, is that it will take about two to three years and upwards of $10,000. It just doesn’t seem do-able – especially now that I don’t have a job.
A couple of days ago, I finally heard back from the Board of Regents. There is no statutory requirement for a Bachelor’s degree. It was suggested that had I the appetite for it, a conversation with the Dean (whom the decision was pinned on) would be in order, but I declined. First of all, the conversation that I did have with the Dean began with her walking into her office saying, “This would not be my decision…” so if in fact it was her decision, then I’d rather not have my naïveté pummeled again. And do I really think that I would come out the winner in such a conversation? That at the end of it all, the President would smack her forehead and say, “Hey, wait a minute! Let’s get that girl back here!” And we’d all hold hands in the Rose Garden and read poetry.
That’s not happening.
The unfortunate message here is that if I had stayed in either of those that crazy quilt bachelor’s programs in Texas almost 35 years ago, I would have a Bachelor’s degree and a job. Of course nothing in those undergraduate programs had anything to do with the skills and knowledge I have now. (Except for earnestly encouraging students to stay in school– “Get your degree!” I say to anyone who will listen.) Having that ancient degree would have somehow qualified me to teach or run a program more than the relevant work I’ve done over the last ten years with an earned Master’s degree.
If I know anything about education–and I do–I know that it takes all kinds of experiences to acquire knowledge. My own untraditional experience included. Diversity in learning makes for a better teacher and a successful student. I feel that I have been successful in my teaching because I have taken a path that many of my students have had to take; getting their education in the midst of managing a life. Sometimes it’s just not possible to go the traditional route and fortunately there are alternate routes available. I’m just saying that that experience should be considered when determining appropriate credentials.
So, in the end, I got my answer. There is no actual reason for my termination. Actually, the only legitimate reason to keep me from teaching is that my Master’s degree is not in the discipline. Everything else was arbitrary and capricious and there’s nothing I can do about it. Unfair isn’t illegal. Now that the summer courses are over and I attended the ceremonies and turned in my grades, I’m ready to move on. I will admit to getting a twinge of longing as the start of the semester approaches, but it’s not like I won’t teach again. I feel confident that I did a good job, represented myself honestly and turned in the best work I knew how to do. I am not going to use up a lot of negative energy pursuing options that require me to “fight” an institution that I continue to hold in high regard. I lost a job, two actually, but I didn’t lose my supportive colleagues, lasting friendships or a rewarding experience with incredible students. That is what my education gave me. I wouldn’t trade it for any other.