In 2015, I came to Princeton to get a degree and I am leaving without one.
I am no longer pursuing a PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was actually dismissed from the program. Though given the opportunity to withdraw from the institution so that I could “preserve any grievances against the Seminary” and “control the narrative”, I did not. I knew to do so would mean to be dishonest about one of the most difficult times of my life and, as I was taught, you don’t do people’s dirty work for them.
Since the death of my mother, I requested a leave of absence three times. They were all denied. On two occasions, it was requested on my behalf by my former committee. My mother’s death rocked me and it was clear I needed time to heal and regroup. Because we are required to live in campus housing as doctoral students, I asked for the opportunity to remain in my apartment during a semester’s leave. Knowing my mother had passed away, one of the deans asked me why I couldn’t just go stay with my dad. It was the beginning of realizing the insensitivity that I would continue to experience. Current students who give birth are allowed to remain in their campus apartments and receive time off right after they become mothers but I wasn’t given any of that to grieve the loss of mine.
At the beginning of my second year, I learned that I would need a corneal transplant. Again, I went to my institution requesting a leave of absence for medical reasons. The same dean told me that if I took a leave of absence, I would not be allowed to have health insurance and would be required to pay for this surgery out of pocket. It was later determined that was incorrect information but only after I was required to complete a semester at the same time I was having a major procedure. What would have taken a minute to confirm caused me more stress and strain. To date, I have been offered no apology.
Following my sexual assault, I communicated to my therapist and advisor what took place. Working through the trauma, it became clear that remaining in my apartment was not conducive to my health and wellbeing. Last Fall, I went to Administration and told them what happened to me. I requested a housing reassignment and it was denied. At the beginning of Spring semester, in my apartment, I suffered a panic attack and was diagnosed with PTSD.
When I received the call that my department did not feel confident in my ability to complete my program successfully, I asked how that determination could be made when every request I made of the institution was denied. In fact, with full access to my mental health records, my diagnoses were weaponized and used as justification for dismissal. I went into my appeal hearing and made it clear that we were not in this moment because I failed to perform but because when I asked for accommodations, they all were denied. A week after the hearing, I was notified that I was dismissed from the program. A week after that, I was offered a $10,000 transitional assistance package, “as a gesture of compassion”, to help me “move on from Princeton”. It was mine if I left early, quietly and released any future claims against the institution. I declined to accept it.
I spent a lot of time being amazed by my experience here. Growing up in the South, I know racism. Most of my teachers were racist and I knew it. And yet, they still taught me proper sentence structure; they gave me the best of what they had while also despising having to do so. I know Southern racism. Southern racist Christians, I know. These Northern ones are a completely different breed.
They’re not racist because they have forums on race but can’t explain why you received a “made up” leave of absence -one still requiring you to attend classes and do work- and not the leave of absence in the handbook.
They’re not racist because they teach Critical Race Theory and Womanist/Feminist Theologies and fight for prison reform but ask you, “why didn’t you use the womanist theology class to heal from your mother’s death so that you could move on?”
They’re not sexist because they affirm the gifts of women in ministry but, instead of approving your housing reassignment, they tell you that they will pray for you.
They’re not ableist because they affirm the humanity of all God’s creation but quickly suggest that you have “instabilities” that would make it “impossible” to complete a program.
They’re not racist because, after all they let you in, but when you ask how you can be dismissed and offered $10,000, you’re told that without the institution, you’d be “homeless”.
I know Southern racism. It will take me a while to get used to this Northern way of life.
And, at the same time, I learned a great deal about myself. Despite every denied request and refused accommodation, I would have stayed here. I would have tried to push myself to the finish line without much care of how I ended the race. In retrospect, my mother died and everything around me was uncertain. This provided certainty and stability- even if it was unhealthy.
...and that is the larger truth: I’d begun to believe that I had to endure unhealthy and destructive situations to prove my worth.
We all know you have to work hard to get a degree. That’s how I got here. It’s one thing to stay and do the hard work. It’s another thing to believe that you deserve the mistreatment you’re receiving. And, on some level, I did. I would have stayed and tried to make it work believing that, by staying, I was sowing into a better day. This lesson didn’t just show up with this situation; it’s been present in relationships- both platonic and intimate. It’s a lesson I have to learn: I am my best advocate and nobody will value me more than myself.
So I’m leaving without a degree and, to many, that makes me a failure. To those who already had commentary on any aspect of these past three years, it gives them the ammunition to laugh and say, “See! I told you!” Others will say that I just didn’t want it bad enough because, if I did, I would have figured it out. And, if I allowed myself to do so, I could see it as failure, too. But when I think about the fact that, as of today, my mother has only been gone 30 months and all that I have survived since she left this world, I am an overcomer. The truth is this season completely broke me and, somehow, God was able to put me back together in ways that make the cracks beautiful. Those cracks don’t testify to the experience itself but to the fact that we can be repurposed after it. And that is what is happening. I am being repurposed and made new.
While this has been a tough road, I am grateful to my family, friends, former professors, colleagues, mentors, pastors and program alumni who have prayed with me, wiped tears and helped counsel me on next steps. I am grateful to my attorneys and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their advocacy. I am grateful to a God who is keeping me and a mother who taught me the power of one person to stand up and make a difference. And I am grateful to myself for fighting through even when I was exhausted and ready to quit.
I am well rested now and ready for the new journey ahead.