Loving the Gratitude, and imagining a counter-factual

My spirits are lifted by reading the expressions of gratitude for those professors who mentored us, encouraged us, and saw in us future colleagues with whom they would work. Isn’t it a wonderful balm to reflect on their decency midst the horrendous events at Harvard? To praise their names out loud and let them know the difference they made and make is so necessary.

Now to imagine the inverse. Let’s suppose, for those of us who identify as female, that the male professor who singled us out, praised our work, encouraged us, had ulterior motives. How devastating would that have been?

One of my academic heroes is Arturo Escobar, the brilliant and kind man so many of us admire. Oh his classes at UCSC were an intellectual feast! His mind, his breadth of insights, his humor and his mentoring: it was heady stuff to be in his classes. I suppose he could have parlayed our admiration into something unsavory: He did not. Not. Did I say not? Not.

I remember one office hour session with Arturo. Important backdrop: I worked my way (waiting tables) through college from Cabrillo Community College to my BA at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and on to my MPH and PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. I was not raised to believe I would pursue graduate studies: my mother always hoped I would marry well.

I had taken a couple of courses with Arturo Escobar, and my mind was on fire. All neurons on high alert! Also huge shout out to Sonia Alvarez, whom I admire to the moon —but the topic here is female student/male faculty mentorship. Back to the narrative thread.

So I met with Arturo during office hours, and at one point wondered out loud how I could possibly be happy being a secretary after the ideas I had been exposed to in his classes. He smiled before telling me that, of course, I would go to graduate school. He probably does not remember that conversation–it would be one among hundreds during which he mentored and encouraged his students. But I remember: it was the first time in my life that someone had mentioned graduate school to me. It shifted the horizon of my expectations, which in turned changed the trajectory of my life.

I did go on to graduate school and Arturo wrote a letter of recommendation for me. I have no doubt that his stature in the field influenced the admission committee in my favor. Thank you, Arturo, for your brilliance, inspiration and sheer goodness.

And now for a counter-factual moment. What if all the support he gave me had been nothing more than grooming me, nothing more that raising my hopes to satisfy his belief — as too many professors seem to believe—that sexual access to students was part of his compensation package? Had that been the case I know it would have ended my studies. I, a waitress working her way through college, would have lost all faith in myself. I was already the “odd one out,” a bit older than my classmates and prone to doubting myself. Had the professor I admired so much been a sexual predator, I would have left academia. After all, as a waitress I was exposed to enough harassment each time I went on my shift.

To those female students who had a serial harasser in your way: you needed an Arturo Escobar, you did not have one. And my heart truly breaks for you. It is so wrong. #TheMissingWomen

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