What Does A Professor Look Like?
By Kevin L. Nadal, PhD
As a child of poor immigrants from rural Philippines, I often heard about how my parents grew up without running water and limited electricity. They told my brothers and me stories about the things that they didn’t have while growing up, and how they overcame traumas of war and poverty. These anecdotes made me feel equally grateful and guilty, while also motivating me to strive for success. In fact, it is through these stories that I learned the importance of attaining a college education as a way of fulfilling our parents’ American dreams and somehow compensating for the historical trauma that my family had overcome for centuries.
When I was accepted into the University of California at Irvine, I declared a major of psychology. In retrospect, I did so for two basic reasons: 1) because I enjoyed an introductory psychology class I took in high school and 2) because I wanted to help people. I thought that when I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree that I could be a psychologist, and I naively held onto that belief until my third year of college.
At some point during my college career, I realized that I had only had two high school teachers of color – a Filipina who taught World History and a Chicano who taught Religious Studies. Having gone to a high school that was 70% people of color (and about 50% Filipino American), being taught by White teachers (and learning through White lenses) was the norm. In college, my first few semesters were taught by White professors (although more than half of the students were Asian American), which made me feel like it would be the same type of educational experience.
However, sometime during my third year, I was introduced to my first professors of color – a Korean American woman who taught Political Science and a Black American man who taught Psychology. From that point on, I went out of my way to find other professors of color too. So, I signed up for the Multicultural Education class taught by Dr. Jeanett Castellanos – a class that would forever change my life.
Our classroom was filled mostly with students of color – each with unique perspectives and ideas. Dr. Castellanos had a way of connecting with each student – finding a way of making them feel special. Everything she had taught in the class was something I had great interest in. We talked about racism and immigration and privilege. I found myself participating more than I had in any other class. I wondered why I loved this class so much more than my psychology classes, and I realized that it was because we were talking about issues that were so meaningful to me.
Dr. Castellanos (or Dr. C as I affectionately called her) pulled me aside one day and asked me to meet with her in her office. At first, I thought I was getting in trouble (which I later learned is a common first reaction for any student of color or child of immigrants when a teacher asks for a personal meeting). However, she assured me that it was because she wanted to talk about my future. She asked me what I would be doing after college, and I told her I was going to be a psychologist. She asked me about where I would be going for graduate school, and I said, “What is graduate school?”
She sweetly replied: “Well you’re going to have to go to graduate school if you want to become a psychologist.”
I was dumbfounded; I had no idea.
She continued: “Well, I think you should get a Ph.D.”
“You mean medical school? I don’t want to be a doctor.”
Smiling, she responded, “Well, you would be a different type of doctor. You’d have a doctorate.”
What I remember most about that conversation is that she did not shame me; instead, she educated me. She taught me about what I needed to do to get into graduate school. She recommended that I get my Master’s degree first, so that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. She told me to apply for the Ronald E. McNair program and another undergraduate research program – which were both designed to ensure that students like me were aware of the resources and opportunities to succeed. I got into both.
In my senior year, Dr. C pulled out the brochures of the programs that she thought I should apply for. (The internet was not as sophisticated back then, so very little information was available online). I chose a handful of schools that seemed interesting, and each sent back big catalogues with applications. I wrote my essays about how I wanted to be a Filipino American professor and how I wanted to study Filipino American psychology.
When I got my first acceptance letter, I was absolutely shocked; I thought there had been a mistake. As a few more rolled in, I was still in disbelief. While this would continue to be a theme in my life – that any success I have is somehow a mistake – Dr. C assured me that I deserved all of those acceptances. She helped me navigate my decision of where to go, and for twenty years, she continued to be someone who I could reach out to for support and guidance.
Experiences like these are why it has become so important for me to ensure that young people of color, particularly those with multiple marginalized intersectional identities, could indeed recognize that they, too, could be become professors. Perhaps many of us do not know what is possible because we don’t have exposure to professors or others who look like us. Perhaps many of us are used to seeing White people as our teachers, authority figures, and celebrity role models, that we don’t recognize that we, too, can be those same influential figures. As my good friend Dr. Silvia Mazzula always says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Ten years later, after attaining a Master’s degree and a doctorate, I actually became a tenure-track assistant professor. The only problem was that I was still one of the few professors of color in my department, one of two queer people, and definitely the only Filipino American. Though I had the same (and arguably more) credentials than my peers, I was used to being talked down to by my older White male colleagues or being asked “Where is the professor?” when I started lecturing on the first day of class. So not only is visibility important to encourage young people of color to enter the academy, but it is also important for us to change the face, the narrative, and the norm of academia.
Today, Dr. Mazzula and I continue to work on different projects to enhance visibility of people of color within academia – from the Latina Researchers Network to the LGBTQ Scholars of Color Network. More recently, we’ve promoted the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAProfessorLooksLike to show the faces of academia – or at least the faces that we often don’t see. No longer should we be comfortable with the status quo of having only White professors. No longer should we be complicit in allowing our future generations to believe that they cannot achieve their goals. While there could definitely be more of us, we do exist. And we are fierce, fabulous, loud, and proud.
Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal is a Professor of Psychology at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He received his doctorate in counseling psychology from Columbia University in New York City and is one of the leading researchers in understanding the impacts of microaggressions , or subtle forms of discrimination, on the mental and physical health of people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people; and other marginalized groups. He has published over 100 works on multicultural issues in the fields of psychology and education. A California-bred New Yorker, he was named one of People Magazine’s hottest bachelors in 2006; he once won an argument with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor”; and he was even once a Hot Topic on ABC’s “The View”. He has been featured in the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, the Weather Channel, the History Channel, HGTV, Philippine News, and The Filipino Channel. He is the author of eight books including Filipino American Psychology: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice (2011, John Wiley and Sons), That’s So Gay: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community (2013, APA Books), and Microaggressions and Traumatic Stress (2018, APA Books). He was the first openly gay President of the Asian American Psychological Association and the first person of color to serve as the Executive Director of the Center for LGBTQ Studies. He is a National Trustee of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and a co-founder of the LGBTQ Scholars of Color National Network. He has delivered hundreds of lectures across the United States, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol. He has won numerous awards, including the American Psychological Association Early Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest.