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Last fall, after nearly two years of underemployment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I began teaching at Mercy College in New York as an adjunct professor. I was excited to finally be back in the classroom doing the thing I loved: teaching. I knew the terms of my contract, and while I wished the compensation was better, I accepted the offer in hopes that a steady income would be the start I needed to finally get back on my feet.
My story is not unique — it mirrors the lived conditions of Black and brown folks in academia across the country. According to a 2020 report from the American Federation of Teachers, nearly half of U.S. adjunct faculty members “struggle to cover basic household expenses” and more than 20 percent depend on public assistance. The pay rate for Mercy College adjuncts is $3,000 per course, and, while rates vary, adjunct pay remains low. Nationally, adjunct faculty members make, on average, just $3,500 per course.
This low pay, paired with precarity on the job and two years of stalled negotiations with management, has led adjunct faculty members at Mercy College to plan to strike during the week of May 2. I stand in full support of these workers, and all of those seeking just working conditions.
When I started at Mercy, I had also taken a job at Montclair State University to supplement my income, earning just under $5,000 for one course. My total take home income was a little over $900 every two weeks. On the side, I freelanced as an independent editor. There were days when I did not have enough train fare to get to class, and days when I spent my last dollars to do so. I survived on cans of tuna fish between pay days because it was all I could afford. Within the first three weeks of class, I felt the weight of how much I had to push my body just to survive. I wanted the consistency of a stable income, including benefits, for myself and my students, and I didn’t want to rely on bouncing around from university to university. Yet I knew that in the modern world of academics, Mercy College would not give me the resources or stability I needed. As a queer, Black person from the South, who is relatively cash-poor, I had to think about survival and how I was going to pay New York City rent — among the highest in the country — and afford to eat. At the end of the semester, I took an office job that paid a modest salary and provided me with healthcare for the first time in my adult life.
If Mercy college, along with all U.S. colleges and universities, wish to attract a more diverse faculty pool, they must begin by offering better working conditions for adjunct faculty members, including higher wages and longer contracts. This is crucial because the majority of Mercy students are low income and people of color. Representations of different racial, class, and gendered experiences among faculty is important. I can attest to the positive effects of having someone who looked like me helming a classroom. Studies from John Hopkins and American University reveal that students benefit from having teachers who look like them: Black students who have even one Black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college.
Administrators across the nation must also understand the implications of what hiring diverse faculty means on a socioeconomic level, and subsequently support staffers of color who join their respective institutions. Research shows that Black educators specifically suffer under more student debt obligations than their white counterparts. An article from the National Education Association reads, “More than half of Black educators (56 percent) took out student loans — with an average initial amount of $68,300 — compared to 44 percent of white educators, who borrowed $54,300 on average. One in five of those Black educators still owe more than $105,000.” The economic and social disparities are even more glaring among queer Black and POC educators.
My grandparents — both born in southern Mississippi at the dawn of the Jim Crow era — didn’t go to college. My mom was a first-generation college graduate who became a nurse and provided a life for herself as a single-parent raising two kids in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In order to pay for college, I have accrued about $100,000 worth of student loan debt. From a young age, I understood a college education to be a necessary stepping stone on my quest to fulfill the American dream. If the only thing that stood between me and a college education was a loan, I’d sign on the dotted line with the hope that the return on investment (i.e. the prospect of landing a job that would pay enough to comfortably repay my loan debts) would be worthwhile.
The Fall 2021 semester at Mercy, I had the pleasure of leading an “Introduction to Fiction” class. Inside the classroom, I strived to be a prepared, engaging teacher, crafting lesson plans that challenged my students to think outside of the box and to think about writing and narrative in new ways. I crafted my syllabus with the utmost care, selecting readings from queer, Black, and Latinx authors to engage my students in lessons using stories they could see themselves in. One day a Latina student emailed me mid-semester to say that my class was her favorite because it inspired her to begin keeping a journal. Through literature, I was able to show my students that our individual stories were both unique and universal.
That semester outside the classroom, amid grading papers and discussion board assignments, I was applying for the New York City Emergency Rental Assistance Program to repay the rent I had fallen behind on months prior. In an effort to eat a healthier diet, I found myself traveling further and spending more money to maintain the consistent diet of fresh produce that I needed to be alert. On days when I didn’t have money for the train, I looked over my shoulder after sliding under the turnstiles to make it to class every week.
As educators, we give our all to our students. However, when queer educators of color face the socioeconomic disparities that accompany their experiences as marginalized people of color in America, it is more likely that a larger proportion of these educators’ time and attention will be occupied by the day-to-day struggle of staying afloat and living paycheck-to-paycheck rather than serving their students. For institutions whose students are largely people of color, BIPOC representation in faculty — from adjunct to tenured staff — is critical to student success and engagement, and to creating a safe and welcoming campus culture.
After leaving Mercy College, what I regret most is having to leave behind the students who connected with me. I am only one of hundreds of adjunct faculty members who turn over each year at Mercy. When faculty members aren’t paid a living wage, it becomes extremely difficult to sustain employment at the institution and build relationships with colleagues and students. In 2020, adjunct faculty members began contract negotiations at Mercy, in which they asked for a living wage and job security. After two years of frustrating negotiation processes in which Mercy administration failed to meet the demands for higher wages, longer term contracts, and input on campus decision-making, adjuncts are now preparing to strike.
As an educator who knows the economic realities that Black and queer people in academia face sustaining a living, I support striking in order to improve the pay of Mercy adjuncts. Black and brown students and adjuncts at Mercy deserve more, and I hope with this strike that they are able to create a Mercy community that truly empowers students to thrive.
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Victoria R. Collins (she/they) is a queer, Black, southern writer and educator born and bred of the clay soil of Mississippi, currently living and working in The Bronx. Vic holds an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from The New School. Follow Vic @vicwritesthings