When I was offered my first professional job almost seven years ago as an assistant dean of students, my supervisor, Dr. Renee Alexander, told me that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Those words stayed with me from that moment on, and I realized that I needed to commit myself to ongoing personal and professional development if I wanted to thrive in my career. Sometimes, this advice is fulfilled in unexpected ways.
My cell phone rings at 11:08 on the morning of February 20th, and I see an unknown number that I innately knew was the call I had been dreading. Too much time had passed since I was supposed to hear back. I did not get the tenure-track position I hoped for. I was not surprised. The world of higher education is small, and in the days leading up to that call I was informed that a friend of a friend heard who received the offer and that they were likely going to accept. Given the hearsay of it all, I hoped that maybe the candidate would not accept, and I would eventually be made the offer. But no, that did not happen.
This year, the most stressful part of my doctoral journey was figuring out what happens next. For the past couple of years, I have been mentored by the best and have been able to publish, conduct my own research, and teach. It reassured me that I did want to become a professor. However, I also knew that I wanted to be closer to home. Although I was never more than a few hours away from home, this year I have been able to live within a half hour from my family and I was reminded how much value they bring to my life. And so, I was really worried about being on the academic market because I was socialized to believe that I had to be willing to take a job anywhere, especially if I wanted to be on the tenure track. I knew I did not want to compromise, but I was also enamored by the idea of exploring new cities and different types of institutions to develop professionally as an academic. However, being able to see my nieces grow up, to spend more time with my parents and elderly family members, and to no longer feel like there was a major disconnect between my life as a professional and my family—I knew that my heart was at home.
I was stubborn. I only applied to faculty jobs in areas that were close enough to home or in desirable cities where I had a strong network of family or friends. However, in October, I saw that an institution close to home had an opening. It seemed perfect. The institution aligned nicely with my research agenda, it was conveniently located, and the way that the call was prepared spoke to things that I was really interested in involving myself with. I enthusiastically applied. Although I was nervous, something felt right and special about this.
I eventually had a phone interview, which went great, and I was invited for an on-campus interview. Now the nerves were really settling in. I had worked so hard to get to this point, and everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for me—I was so afraid that I would somehow mess up and lose the opportunity for my “dream job.”
The on-campus interview, was of course, the most stressful aspect of the process. I constantly thought: Am I good enough? Does my research matter to them? How can I communicate that I am an effective teacher who values teaching?
Overall, I thought I did a great job. I had a great time. I connected authentically with the faculty and administrators at my job talk. What really drew me into the program more was meeting the students and seeing how collegial their relationships were with the faculty and how excited they were about the potential of me joining their program. In fact, after the interview, I exchanged several emails with students, offering advice on navigating the job search process and trying to secure a position at one’s alma mater as a recent graduate. Everything really seemed to be working out in my favor.
This was right before the holiday season, so I knew that it would be months before I heard back about the position. I convinced myself not to worry until after the first week of January and to not be that applicant who checks in too often. When I finally got the call that I would not be receiving an offer, the search chair assured me that I did a fantastic job and that everyone loved me. However, the candidate that received the offer already had their PhD and some experience as a postdoc. While I understood that rationale completely, I could not help but be frustrated that my best was not enough. Having already felt a strong rapport with the students, I had gotten a glimpse of what I could have brought to the program and its students and felt saddened that I would not be able to do that. I felt very wanted, yet somehow unwelcomed.
I knew that securing a tenure-track position was going to be unlikely. I already made up my mind that I would not entertain opportunities that were in places I could not see myself moving to. At that point in time, it was unlikely for more tenure lines to be posted, and I began to expand my search to positions that allowed me to put my research into practice. I had spent the last four years engaged in research pertaining to the experience of first-generation college students and wanted to make sure I was able to remain in that line of work. While I may not have been able to take the traditional academic route, I was determined to remain committed to finding fulfilling work that would allow me to serve first-generation college students and inform the way academics and administrators think, act, and support this population.
Just a couple of months later and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we think of higher education today. With so many aspects of everyday life in college (and everywhere) left unknown, my academic curiosity of how we understand supporting first-generation college students in postsecondary educational contexts shifted to how I can help this population thrive in the post-pandemic era of higher education. That is when I came across the College Success Manager position with KIPP NYC.
In the coming months, I will begin my tenure with KIPP through College and Career to manage and support the professional development of KIPP alumni who are serving the organization through a fellowship to help advise KIPP students in college. I am excited to be part of the KIPP network, to inform the ways in which we think about college access and how to support low-income, first-generation college students. This position allows me to put my research into practice and I am grateful to begin this journey at a time where our students need us the most.
This position provides me the opportunity to offer robust academic and professional support to current undergraduate students and recent college alumni, most of which identify as low-income, first-generation college students. This will be the first time I am directly working with students like me from my community in New York City. Through my conversations thus far with my team, I can tell they are committed to supporting the success of the students, and are determined to be an example of how we should approach college advising and support for first-generation college students on a national level.
When I reflect on this whole experience, “failing” in the academic market led me to see how my preparation equipped me with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in this type of work in a moment where students from my community entering college are very vulnerable. While I see myself in the classroom in the future, now more than ever, I feel like I am exactly where I wanted to be all along—wanted, near home, and helping students like me thrive in college.
Dr. Andrew Martinez is a research associate and visiting scholar for the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle.