As an educator, I am always conscious of how impossibly distant college can seem to those struggling on the social and financial margins, and can also personally testify to education’s power for great change, to open doors in the mind and heart, but also to the precious luxury of better options. I grew up in rural Nevada as one of three kids. My mother worked as a casino cashier, janitor, shelf stocker, groundskeeper. She did this while battling our underfunded rural school system for the support my two brothers with speech and learning disabilities needed. Meanwhile, my stepfather, a Vietnam vet sickened by exposure to Agent Orange and prone to violent hallucinations, spent years on the couch unemployed, running up debt. I got away: I moved out, left high school, earned my GED, and then moved to Oregon, started community college, and transferred to Portland State University, where I earned a scholarship and then a full ride to graduate school at Cornell.
I am well aware that my disadvantages were and still are balanced by my privileges: I am white, physically abled, cisgender, without physical or neurological differences. I am also sensitive to the fact that not all differences are visible; that discrimination is institutional, systemic, and nuanced; and that each student comes with their own experiences, abilities, and struggles. Living and teaching in four countries has honed that awareness, as my students have come from vastly different cultures, beliefs, learning styles, and social norms. What I learned from them is teaching is never a one-size-fits-all practice: as an educator, I must be flexible and responsive and creative; I must reach out to my students and meet them where they are, encourage them, challenge them, mentor them, and most of all, believe in them. A truly inclusive classroom sets a high bar but ensures every student has the means and the chance to reach it.
My experience has also taught me the importance of how education can give perspective on the systems that we are born into and how forces work to enforce disadvantages and privilege. What I’ve learned is that no matter how hard I or anyone works to be self-aware and unprejudiced, those forces are like an onion—for each layer peeled back, another lurks beneath. I teach my students the kinds of exercises that might guide them to realize what deeply held assumptions they hold and how to begin the difficult and exhilarating work of freeing their minds to explore with compassion and clarity. I am committed to encouraging my students to read widely and think critically, to pay attention to the world around them, to reflect on their experiences and to listen to perspectives and experiences very different from their own, because it helps them not just grow into better writers, but also better people.
Some classroom work I use to facilitate this peeling-and-growing include Harvard’s implicit association quiz, the Barnga cross-cultural communication game, reflection exercises, and privilege inventories. Whenever possible, I tie our coursework to the local community. For example, in my “Imaginary Cities” course, my students explored our city of Ankara in teams, conducting field observations and writing a collaborative paper analyzing what they saw through three urban theories on gender, segregation, and militarization. For my folklore course, students conducted oral history interviews with other students and family members. I’ve also enjoyed mentoring students on extensive extracurricular research projects that aimed for the public good, such as interviewing transnational migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf to illuminate the experiences of a marginalized population, collecting illness narratives from SE Asian laborers quarantined in Qatar’s national tuberculosis clinic to help improve TB outreach and education in labor camps, and interviewing elderly storytellers to preserve a vanishing oral tradition. I teach holistically and whole-heartedly, and with a firm belief in education’s immense transformative possibilities.
That belief is coupled with gratitude for the way it has transformed my life as well as my mother’s. In her fifties, she returned to college, commuting hours every day to the nearest city while still working full time, persisting her way through two degrees. We graduated the same spring, and she is now a social worker in child protective services, helping vulnerable families much like ours once had been, reminding me all the time that the doors are there—we just need some help, sometimes, to reach them.