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KCC Faculty on Teaching

KCC Faculty on Teaching

Dr. Catherine Ma

How did you get into teaching?
I was a writing fellow for a professor at the College of Staten Island who became an entrusted mentor and a dear friend. When my fellowship ended, she asked if I wanted to teach as an adjunct and I was like, sure! That simple conversation was a life-changing moment for me. It changed the trajectory of my life and my career.

What career did you imagine for yourself when you were in college?
While in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise. I had learned about accounting at my business high school in Manhattan and thought, ‘I’m good with numbers. I can be an accountant.’ My mom was happy because my aunts were accountants. But then I had another life-changing moment: I took “Introduction to Psychology” at Baruch. I had never been so interested in any class before! I devoured everything I learned in that class. I couldn’t wait to read the textbook and learn more about psychology. I knew I wanted to become a psychologist, but didn’t know how to reach my end goal. We were a family of immigrants, and I was a first-generation college student. Immigrants and first-generation college students experience many invisible obstacles. My parents couldn’t advise me on what majors to choose, what careers to pursue, how to become a psychologist, etc. The first thing my mom said was that I wouldn’t make any money, but I don’t think she really knew what a psychologist was. I spent my lunchtime at the mid-Manhattan branch of the NYC public library and learned what I needed to do to become a psychologist.

What do you love about teaching?
What I love most about teaching is meeting students who are like myself: immigrant and first generation. It’s one thing to tell students you are there for them. It’s a whole different ballpark when you share that you’ve been where they are, that you understand their unique struggles and what they are going through, and you are here to help them every step of the way. I try to be the professor I never had.

What’s your favorite teaching experience?
My favorite teaching experience happened in my psychology of immigration class, which I had created to counter the negative rhetoric of a particular president-elect in 2016. I cover many topics related to immigrants and immigration in that course and was discussing the impact of imposter syndrome, where individuals feel they don’t belong in whatever particular field they are in, no matter how many accolades they have earned. I shared my early experiences as an academic who felt like she didn’t belong and how I often felt a lot of doubt in my areas of expertise. I discussed how systemic racism in academia often targets faculty of color and ways to overcome those obstacles. After class, one of my quieter students thanked me for sharing my experiences and for talking about imposter syndrome because many times she had felt that she did not belong in a college setting. We chatted as we walked to our next classes and I told her that we all sometimes forget that we belong. It can be due to battling stressors at the moment or when someone treats us as “lesser than,” but we all belong. Some days are darker than others. I invited her to reach out to me when she has one of those darker days, so I can help her remember how much she does belong. This is the power of teaching: When you share your experiences, it gives permission for students to share theirs – and that is where the best learning happens.

In what ways do you bring your professional experience into the classroom?
My research on maternal issues, immigrants, immigration, race, discrimination and antiracism resonates with our students, who face many of the same issues. It makes teaching really interesting because we have really deep conversations in class around many of these heavy subjects. I recall one day when I was teaching about racism, which is always difficult but such an important topic to address as it colors many experiences our students face on a daily basis. There was an older white gentleman in my class who stopped my lecture to share something that was on his mind. Most of the time when this happens, it leads to an unpleasant outcome where a student will spew racist rhetoric. This time was different. This student actually thanked me for teaching him about the cultural genocide of residential schools, the detriment of the model minority myth, the harassment of female faculty of color, the daily racism people of color face, and the devastation of families of migrant workers. He said our class had changed the way he viewed immigrants. He saw how his actions, thoughts and behaviors contributed to the pain of immigrants and people of color. I was floored and so thankful that I was a professor who could make such a change in that student.

What advice do you have for current students?
I want all students at KCC to be open to learning new ideas and, once they’ve learned those new ideas, to use that knowledge to stand up against injustice whenever it rears its ugly head. The last few years have been extremely trying for me as a Chinese American woman but I channeled my rage to creating a new course, changing my research interests to antiracism, helping our education majors be better prepared to address issues of race and racism in their own classrooms, and reading books by Drs. Bettina Love and Chris Emdin to feed my mind as well as my pedagogy. Always keep learning because that is the only way we can empower ourselves to stand up against injustice.