Amazing and worth reading story of a black male professor, struggling to find himself and to get on the right path.
Four years into my career, I still does not come natural when someone calls me “professor.” Why? Well, because I never envisioned being here. By most accounts, I’m not your everyday college professor. I didn’t spend years in a relentless pursuit of my position. Quite the opposite, actually: I consider myself to be the accidental professor.
It sounds unconventional, but like so many young, black males in the ’90s and now, I grew up with the misconception that sport was the one and only way to “succeed.” By the time I arrived at Rutgers University with a full ride to play Division I football, I’d already picked out my three-piece suit for the NFL draft. A little untimely, I know.
Now I regret that I chose not to engage academically. Rather, I committed an array of academic improprieties, mentally devastating myself without even knowing it. Case and point: I didn’t read my first book in college, cover-to-cover, until my senior year. It was around that time that I realized the chances of becoming a professional athlete were equal to zero. A defensive back with a bum knee and little playing time under my belt, I simply was not good enough.
Forced to do something different, I started a very personal renaissance of that kind. Audre Lorde powerfully wrote, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” The problem was, I didn’t know who I was without sports. What was I good at? What and who did I want to be? How eventually I am going to get there?
Since I didn’t know what to do, my twenties became my blank canvas to try many different things in life. I entered a master’s program, sold copy machines door to door in LA, was a doorman for the BET Awards After Party twice. I worked in politics, acted in a later-cut scene of a music video, took the LSAT, tried modeling which was not successful, interned for Congress, judged a beauty pageant, took the police exam for the LAPD and scored a 98%, played neighborhood barber.
At least I gained admission into a doctoral program. Needless to say, these years were a bit all over the place.
And you are probably still wondering, how did I become a professor? It was like this. My desire to jump into anything and everything naturally calmed down over time, and I discovered that the life of a doctoral student doesn’t lend itself to very much outside of reading and writing.
By the time I began writing my dissertation on the academic abuse of the student athlete, I was determined to become an athletic director and stop the exploitation of black male student athletes, similar to what I`ve already experienced.
My dissertation advisor suggested that I should give teaching a try. That was just before he walked me into a class to guest lecture. I was nervous. OK, very very nervous, but I got over it and I spoke. After that, I did it many times at other institutions. Before I knew it, I was on an interview to be a full-time assistant professor at a small liberal arts college outside of Boston.
It has been four years since I started teaching, and I simply love it. So much that I think I will stick with this for a bit and leave my days as a salesman, doorman, model, and barber far behind.
Hopefully that for others who are also unsure about their paths, mine serves as a reminder of the following three things:
1. Embrace the Road Less Traveled
Obviously, there are suggested pathways to a career, but there is no one way. Our paths are just that: our paths. They’re a hodgepodge of experimentation and error, good advice, not-so-good advice, encounters with interesting people, unwavering hopes, crushing reality, and hopefully a little bit of fun. Never compare your path with someone else’s, because once you dig past the surface level, you’ll find out that no two are identical.
2. Bet on Yourself
The thought of achievement is subjective, so there’s no reason to be crunched into other people’s meaning of it. To find yourself and your own success, you have to put yourself in a place for self-exploration. Simply, don’t be scared to try something new because you’re scared.
When I was offered admission into my doctoral program, I had two choices: stay in my comfortable, $65K a year job, or give up that money and bet on my future self. Many individuals, including my family, told me I was taking too huge of a risk, but I could not and would not listen. I took the signal from William Ernest Henley and concluded that I was the master of my fate and captain of my soul.
3. Establish a Board of Advisors
In my late twenties, I realized that I’d been playing the game of life without a coach or trusted mentor. I was operating under the false impression that I could figure everything out myself. Sure, I was able to do okay, yet I wanted to do so much better.
That is the point at which my fraternity brother told me that, just as companies have boards of advisors, so should people. Boards are there to advise, vet, divert, listen, and support the growth of a company. If Fortune 500 companies are seeking sage advice, we should probably think about doing the same. They say, there is no time like the present to create your future.