my backstory

Four men, three White and one Black, dressed in suits.
My dad, second from the right, on the day of his graduation from Porterville Community College in 1962.

I was raised in a predominantly White, middle class suburb in California's Silicon Valley by my mother, an artistic woman with a passionate voice, and my father, a man with a love for reading who became a research chemist. My parents are both first generation Americans whose parents entered the United States through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, my dad left his family in New Jersey to drive across the country to California and pursue his dream of being the first in his family to attend college. He made this journey after hearing about "magical places" in California that were giving away degrees for free. These places were California community colleges. Free access to higher education vis-a-vis a community college allowed my father to pursue his dream, as well as lift himself and, subsequently, our family out of poverty. He began as a student at Porterville Community College and with the support of my mother transferred to San Jose State University to earn his B.S. and M.S. in Chemistry and then received his Ph.D. from Iowa State University.

For decades, I have recognized the social mobility that my father achieved as a result of the opportunity to earn a college degree. I have also recognized that I have been afforded many privileges as a result of that opportunity. I moved into a home when I was two and stayed in that same home until I moved out as an adult. I always felt safe and never had to worry about where I'd get my next meal. I had access to health care. I also had nice things – a swimming pool with a diving board and slide, a color television, a reliable car, and season tickets to the 49ers during their 1980s heyday. We were also the first family on the block to get a computer. My mother would write things in my birthday cards like, "Shoot for the stars; you might land on the moon" and "Always believe in yourself." They recognized my strengths and encouraged me to cultivate them. They cued me that I deserved a seat at the table.

What I failed to see until recently is the privilege that my parents' and grandparents' white skin granted them and how I have thrived on that generational privilege. I saw their struggle – and struggle they did – but I did not consider how different it would have been for my family if their skin had been black or brown.  That realization came to me the day my dad sent me the photograph you see on this page. It arrived in a manilla envelope with a piece of paper that read, "Event: Porterville Junior College Graduation Day, June, 1962." When I saw my dad standing with his three friends, one of whom is Black, I began to imagine how different these men experienced their early college days. I asked my dad about it. He told me about his Black friend, George, and how they used to go to a local pizza place in the afternoon to grab a beer and study together. When it got closer to dinner time and more customers arrived, they would be nudged out to make room for the White customers. I imagined the discrimination George must have endured in his classes from his professors and peers. That's the moment I really understood what White privilege is.

I am on a lifelong journey to understand of my racial identity, which I was taught not to see. I now see the influence of white dominant culture that has silently shaped me and continues to influence who I am. As I engage in conversations about equity in higher education, I am cognizant of my positionality. I am not an expert in this space; I am a learner. I have learned a lot and I have a lot left to learn.

my early work

I am a teacher at heart but I didn't know this about myself until graduate school when I was required to teach my first discussion section of Gothic art history. I was a nervous wreck. I thought it was surely going to kill me. But, to my surprise, I discovered a love that I had never experienced before. I remember the first student who came to my office hours to tell me, "I learn nothing when I sit and listen to my professor. But I learn so much from you." That connection between me and that student was magic for me. But it was also the moment I began to become aware of the need to improve teaching in higher education – a need that is still largely unrecognized today, more than 20 years later.

I began teaching part-time at a community college after receiving my Master's degree in art history. I worked full-time as a high tech recruiter during the day and taught one art appreciation class every Monday night. I was so insecure. I remember typing my lectures and reading them verbatim as I clutched the lectern with a huge slide projected image behind me. I remember reading a student comment on one of my evaluations that said, "She's a great teacher, but is so much better when she doesn't read her lectures." Guided by that feedback, I slowly took off my emotional armor and braved authentic interactions with my students.

In 2002, I was hired full-time and about a year after that, I taught my first online course. I was honestly very curious to tinker with the idea of teaching online and the thought of having some flexibility in my schedule really appealed to me, as I was the mother of an infant and toddler at the time. Much like my graduate school moment, teaching online sparked something magical inside me. I felt such freedom to create . I recognized also that I was better online in many ways.This had less to do with online and more to do with moving from synchronous to asynchronous interactions. Asynchronicity  provided me with time to think through things more effectively. I could reflect on student interactions before reaching out to them. As I designed – and redesigned – my online classes, I made continuous changes and surveyed my students about their experiences. I used their feedback to recognize what was working and also to discover aspects of my class that I would never have considered. Those student voices have been central to my professional growth as a teacher and the satisfaction I experience through my teaching.

In 2007, I began using  an asynchronous voice and video tool called VoiceThread to teach art history online. It was a game changer for me. Yes, I believed (and still believe) that tools must follow pedagogy. But having accces to a tool that allowed my to facilitate an image-centric learning environment and allowed me and my students to write or record their contributions was a paradigm shift. Bringing asynchronous voice and video interactions into my class illuminated new dimensions of teaching and learning. Not only did it increase the community in my classes, it also allowed me to recognize barriers that prevented some students from succeeding. One semester, I remember viewing a student's video response to a prompt about a work of art. It was an early prompt – one that was designed to warm students up to the idea of talking about images, something that is difficult for students who have no experience in the visual arts. The student had shared with me previously that she had dyslexia. As I sat and listened to her speak, I remember pushing myself away from my desk and feeling my eyes fill with tears. She was so engaged, so eloquent, and really probing to make relevant connections. At once, I reflected on the fragmented writing in that same student's discussion posts. That moment made me recognize that purely text-based learning environments are a barrier for certain groups of students, groups that are more likely to be enrolled at community colleges.  This was the beginning of my journey to design inclusive online learning experiences.