“I’m Free, I’m Free”


How’s the main line from Jon Secada’s ’93 hit “I’m Free” relevant to anything I have to say today? His often overwrought style — one that I still love, by the way — reflected my overwrought times fifteen years ago. It was this week in ’94 that I took and passed my PhD oral comprehensive exam. It’s not of particular significance in the whole scheme of things. Within six months of this exam, I passed my dissertation overview defense and officially became ABD (All [all coursework completed] But Dissertation [thesis]) at the ripe old age of twenty-four. Two years before, I completed my master’s degree in two semesters of grad school. The importance of this event, though, shouldn’t be weighed in degrees. It should be measured in terms of perseverance, determination and the ability to suspend reality.

It all started when I transferred to Carnegie Mellon in March ’93. I knew that I didn’t want to earn three degrees in History at Pitt, and I was a year into the doctoral program there at the time I announced my transfer to my then advisor Larry Glasco. I didn’t say this to him, but I had my eyes on things like fellowships, publications, conference presentations, teaching opportunities, and the academic job market when I made my decision.

In a department where the average amount of time it took for a student to earn a PhD was fourteen years, I knew that there was next to no chance for me to get articles published, pick up a research grant, present at major conferences, or to teach my own courses in the next couple of years. Heck, three months before, Glasco had told me how disappointed in me he was because he thought I was doing an independent study course using quantitative data from census records. Except I wasn’t doing an independent study course with him! My advisor didn’t even know my course schedule! I knew that I needed to leave before I’d find myself living the rest of the ’90s and well into the ’00s as a Pitt History grad student.

I probably should’ve applied to UMich, NYU or UCLA to finish my doctorate. But I went with Carnegie Mellon because of one professor, Joe William Trotter, Jr. It would be the first time I was to work with a quality Black history professor, and he was a tenured one with a respectable research agenda at that. So after taking a grad course in African American history with him in the fall of ’92, I applied to go to Carnegie Mellon, and easily got in. I don’t know what it’s like now, but they only accepted six or seven student in their doctoral program a year, providing full funding (tuition and stipend) without a teaching schedule for the first year. By the time I told Glasco about my move, I was hopeful about my academic future and career prospects.

A full twelve months later found me more humble and more appreciative of the opportunities I had before me than I’d been at any time since the months after my homelessness episode in August ’88. I suffered through a year of sparse dollars, six weeks of post-Pitt unemployment, only to take a job with Allegheny County paying $6 an hour, and found myself within a week of being evicted from my apartment in July ’93. None of my plans for academic domination had worked out that summer, except for me passing my written comprehensive exams that May before I officially began grad school at Carnegie Mellon. Even then, the week of my exams was also the week I had root canal surgery on one of my front bottom teeth. I was on 800 mg of Motrin the day I took my exams.

It was a rough second half of ’93. I dedicated myself to God, church and being the best grad student I could on a $750 a month stipend. I thought for a while that I’d made a tragic error. Carnegie Mellon’s professors wanted to put their stamp of approval on me, so I found myself taking a couple of first semester grad school courses I actually took when I was at Pitt. My advisor called himself “running interference” to keep my publishing and other career ambitions in check. And the campus as a whole was about as exciting as the typically dreary and cold weather of Pittsburgh itself. By the beginning of November, I saw myself wondering if I should just get certified and teach high school history instead.

What happened instead was a combination of what I saw as providence and my determination to make something out of virtually nothing. I simply changed my attitude. I started praying more, casting my burdens unto the Lord, and whining a heck of a lot less about the situation. I kept reminding myself about being in worse situations with fewer resources. Most of all, I began to act as if I knew that everything was going to work out, that I would be free of coursework and grad school sooner rather than later. That carried me through the end of ’93.

The following semester started with me surviving the coldest and snowiest winter I’d ever known with sneakers with holes in them. I ended up taking out my first student loans since my first semester of grad school so that I wouldn’t have to eat chicken and rice three out of every four week. It was a pitiful and monk-like experience for me, those days of grad student life at Carnegie Mellon. I made a point that semester to spend much more time on Pitt’s campus, even sacrificing some academic time for time to hang out with friends and colleagues. At least once the temperature got above ten degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t realize how isolated I felt until I started studying and writing on Pitt’s campus again.

I managed to convince my paranoid advisor that I was ready to take my oral comps, as grad students like to call them. Trotter, of course, was worried that I wasn’t ready. True be told, I probably could’ve taken them before I left Pitt. But there were academic politics involved. I wasn’t a typical Carnegie Mellon grad student, and it had nothing to do with my grades. I was a free-thinker who didn’t adapt to the brown-nosing style of most of my colleagues. I hadn’t “paid my dues” and spent a full three semesters taking redundant courses before moving ahead with my doctoral thesis plans. I hadn’t gained the confidence of all of my professors. What I did in response was to put my foot down. I suggested that if that really was the case, then why am I here when I could’ve gone to another school — especially since Carnegie Mellon had literally accepted all of my Pitt grad school credits? In the end, my advisor worked it out. I was scheduled for a two-hour inquisition in mid-March.

I ended up with a group of professors who were and weren’t my biggest fans. One professor was a mealy-mouthed, Neo-Marxist type who expected her students to stick their noses as far up her butthole as possible. I had her for Comparative Working-Class History the previous fall (it was really US and Western European Working-Class History with a book on Russian women mixed in). I had my advisor for US and African American history, and another professor for History of Education. I spent my holiday break and the first two months of ’94 preparing for the comps, which, if I didn’t pass, would either have one more opportunity to take again — but not until the fall of ’94 — or I’d have to consider another potential profession.

The afternoon before the exam, I was trapped at Forbes Quad (now Wesley Posvar Hall) waiting for a late-winter downpour of sleet and rain to stop. I had no umbrella, and didn’t want to walk home or to Carnegie Mellon in the middle of the mess. I happened to have Jon Secada’s “I’m Free” on at the time. The rain stopped right in the middle of the song. Some clouds opened up and a gigantic rainbow appeared. It was the first time I’d ever seen a rainbow. I’m not kidding. This really happened, and it was a first for me. I took it as a divine sign that everything was going to be all right. And of course it was.

What I take away from this is that regardless of feelings, fears or circumstance, the ultimate thing that determines whether we succeed or not, make it or not, is us, our faith, our drive and determination. The signs are always there for us to see and act upon. The spiritual and mental resources are always available to tap into. It really is up to each of us to seize the moment, to take the right chances at the right time and in the right ways in order to make the near impossible possible and the difficult rather easy. We just have to free ourselves from ourselves, to get out of our own way and make what we want of our lives.

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