If you all will allow me a day off from sex talk, I’d like to share a personal story. I learned this week that one of my favorite professors from my college days, Dr. Robin Powers, passed away from cancer. She was a pivotal figure in my life and I can honestly look back and say that I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am today without her help. Dr. Powers was so much more than just another one of my teachers—she was also a mentor, a friend, and a major source of inspiration for entering the field of psychology.
I spent 10 years of my life as a college student between working on my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctoral degrees. Needless to say, I've had my fair share of teachers! However, there are only a few that I can distinctly remember anymore, and those are the ones who were always striving to do more than just teach me a set of material that I needed to know for an exam. The professors I remember the most took a genuine interest in me as a person and instead of simply wanting me to succeed in their course, they wanted to see me succeed in life. Dr. Powers was one of those teachers.
She was the kind of professor who always had her door open—there was no need to remember her office hours or to set up an appointment. She always made herself available to her students, even though it meant cutting into her other work and her personal time. I’ve met very few PhDs who have anywhere near as much dedication to their students. Whenever I would stop by to meet with her, it was rare for us to talk only about classroom matters; we would also talk about my career plans, my love life, the science fiction novels we were reading, our plans for the weekend, and so forth. She could seamlessly transition between the roles of professor, advisor, and trusted friend in a given meeting and it was this dynamic relationship that really made her stand out and allowed us to have some incredibly meaningful conversations about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. Dr. Powers convinced me that I needed to pursue a career that I truly loved and she helped me to explore several different possibilities. In the end, I decided to switch my major to psychology (I initially went to school for something else entirely).
Dr. Powers’ classroom teaching is what sparked my initial interest in studying issues of gender and sexuality. Growing up in small town Ohio, I must say that I was quite sheltered and didn't know a lot about these topics, so I was very thankful to have a professor who actually taught us about things like sexual orientation, intersex issues, and other forms of sexual diversity. Until I took her classes, I didn’t even know that I could make a living studying these things!
One thing I will never forget about Dr. Powers is the first day of her Psychology of Women course. It was the very first time it had ever been taught at our university, and she relayed the story of how she had to fight tooth and nail to get the course on the books. Mind you, we were at a small Catholic university where several of the classes were taught by priests and the prevailing attitude was pretty traditional and conservative. Others at the university were pushing Dr. Powers to teach a broader course on gender that wouldn’t emphasize one sex, but she made a passionate case for the uniqueness of the female experience and noted just how little students learn about it in college. For one thing, many psychology courses focus on teaching students about “classic” experiments from the past, experiments run primarily by male researchers on male participants. In addition, women experience a number of biological events in their lives that men do not (e.g., menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth), and these events can have profound psychological implications; however, these are not discussed at all in most other courses.
I’m thankful Dr. Powers fought so hard for this course because it really opened my eyes about gender and sexuality in ways that no other course had done before. This class also required me to write what has become my all-time favorite college essay. For the assignment, I had to interview three women from different generations about their careers, relationships, and other lived experiences. This prompted me to have an incredibly memorable conversation with my grandmother that I wouldn’t have otherwise had in which I learned how she had to choose between her career as a school teacher (which she absolutely loved) or getting married and having kids. Believe it or not, in my grandmother’s day, it was actually illegal for a female teacher to be married. Can you imagine such a law today? My grandmother ultimately opted to have a family, but it meant sacrificing her passion for teaching.
Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, Dr. Powers developed cancer. It was hard to see this person who had become so important to me both personally and professionally have to go through something like this. At one point, she didn’t think she was even going to make it to my graduation ceremony due to her illness, so you can imagine how thrilled I was at the ceremony when I ended up seeing her there in the front row. Dr. Powers was a feisty one, and she fought for her life even harder than she fought to teach Psychology of Women. In fact, I’m pleased to say that she lived to teach another whole generation of students after her initial diagnosis and treatment (it has been just over 12 years since I graduated).
I am eternally grateful for the privilege of having Robin Powers in my life. I hope everyone reading this is/was lucky enough to have an educator in their life who cared so much. I also hope that you consider taking a moment today to send a quick email, write a letter, or make a call to thank that person and let them know what kind of impact they had on you. As an educator myself, I can tell you that we aren’t in this profession for the money. By far, the greatest compensation we can get for our work is the simple knowledge that we helped our students succeed.
Thank you for everything, Dr. Powers. My success is your success.
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