Beyond the Ivory Tower

Reflections of a Former Graduate Student Turned Assistant Professor

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One of my favorite aunts is a teacher/educator. I remember vividly as a kid going to visit her at her workplace then in Staff School UNILAG (in Lagos, Nigeria), and watching with rapt attention as she taught the kids in her homeroom. She always enjoyed it, and I enjoyed watching her. I marveled at her love for such a noble profession, especially seeing how mostly unappreciated (and often underpaid) educators are in my home country. Thus, I decided at a young age that teaching was not for me, mainly because I did not think I had the patience for it nor could I afford the lifestyle :-D.

I began to nibble slowly at the crust of my own words when I got into pharmacy school at the University of Lagos, and I started volunteering to teach incoming pharmacy students during the summer of my second year. This decision was in large part because of how much was poured into me by other volunteer tutors during my first year as a new student. Their sacrifice and dedication made my transition into college go seamlessly. I did not think what I was doing at that time was teaching but felt it was merely an opportunity to pour into incoming students with sponge-like minds. My main hope was to transfer my excitability for the profession of pharmacy into these younger minds. By so doing, I got a lot of positive feedback from the students and even served as a mentor to some of them.

Then, I got into grad school and worked as a Teaching Assistant (TA) at the University of Texas at Austin. My first year was what you’d describe as horrible. A handful of students, hiding under the guise of anonymity, gave me scathing reviews. I did get some glowing feedback from other students, but the negative ones (like all bad experiences) permeated harder. I talked to my mentor/instructor about the reviews, and she assured me that this was a common practice for students and that I should not beat myself too much over it. By also talking to my senior colleagues, they echoed the same sentiments. But I just could not brush off those eroding comments, no matter how hard I tried. So I decided to take things a step further by reading the concerns behind the scathing reviews and stripping them off of their emotionality. By so doing, I noticed a commonality in their words — I sucked when it came to communicating my expectations for the class, and they would have wanted me to be clear regarding this. I took this feedback to heart and found ways to improve on this margin of weakness before my next TA appointment. This paid off big time; my reviews became overwhelmingly positive both in-class and off-class. I achieved this by designing a first-day-of-class kit for all my classes to compensate for my sucky communication skills and made sure to keep that flow going until the end of the semester. One year after my first TA experience, I was nominated for a Teaching Excellence Awards by the same body of student that had only in the previous year did not think much of my teaching skills and had gone in an entirely opposite direction.

I learned two valuable lessons from then on:

  • 1) Not all negative reviews are meant to diminish your abilities as a teacher/instructor or even as a person, if you can look beyond the emotions, there could be some valid concerns behind them, and that;
  • 2) There’s always an opportunity to grow, and sometimes the most painful of experiences might be the right bedrock that can help germinate change. Teaching came easily to me from then on, and I received a lot of validation from my students, peers, and faculty members. I got invitations to speak at TA training events and other panels on campus.

Deciding what to do after grad school was a bit confusing especially since I applied broadly and got job offers from academic and non-academic routes. My decision to take the path I am currently on was birthed from my desire to pursue teaching and education; a path and a track that was specially designed for such a purpose. My main goal for teaching remains to motivate my students to develop their own learning interests and critical thinking — to establish a learner-centered environment in the classroom.

In March of this year, I joined the faculty of the Department of Pharmacy: Clinical & Administrative Sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. My role as an Assistant Professor is to teach, research, and serve on academic and administrative committees.

So here’s to current graduate students, let’s keep doing our best, and one day those achievements (borne out of improving on our weakness/opportunity for growth) will pave the way for us. And to my fellow International Students, I totally relate with having to deal with visa issues as a student and the vicissitudes of the job market; however, don’t despair in the journey; here’s sending you all the doses of good wishes in the world. We made it this far, leaving the comfort (or lack thereof) and familiarity of our home countries to chart a new course in the US. If that doesn’t show resilience, I don’t know what does. Keep preserving!

I don’t know what the next 5–10 years holds, however I plan to keep learning and growing in this profession. With my passion for learning, coupled with my desire for growth, and the support of inestimable mentors, I know that that the odds of building a successful career will be a high one (p<0.005 and all).

With Brio,

Mo (모 미영).

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