Answering the Call: Reflections on Teaching at a PWI

Recently, I realized that, unlike many black professors, I've received academic training and held faculty appointments exclusively at predominately white institutions (PWIs). This uniqueness is not trivial; it has made a huge impact on my personal life and professional career. Although I readily admit that a variety of academic and nonacademic factors have influenced my choice of institutions, I feel that my path has been guided mostly by a call to build community.

Scientific Training and Teaching

In 1989, I joined the University Honors Program at the University of Tennessee. After leaving UT, I pursued graduate studies at Georgia Tech and joined the research group of E. Kent Barefield. (I actually completed a year of graduate study at UT before heading to Georgia Tech.) Although I was making excellent progress toward the doctorate, a persistent inner voice urged me to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. I answered the call by writing a master's thesis and moving to Notre Dame in 1996 as an Arthur J. Schmitt presidential fellow. Subsequently, I earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry in 2001 under the direction of Seth Brown.

Since then, I have held tenure-track faculty positions at both Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana and Rowan University in New Jersey. Over the past decade, students and faculty have appreciated my excitement, competence, and passion for teaching. I won four prestigious teaching awards as a graduate student and have received excellent teaching evaluations as a professor.

Impact on Diversity

Throughout my teaching career, I have realized that I am often the first black instructor (and in a few cases, even the first black person) whom my students have ever met. On the first day of class, many students stare in disbelief and amazement as I ascend to the front of the room. The most remarkable responses, however, occur when the students hear me speak for the first time. A few years ago a student, who now has become a close friend, blurted out loudly during the first class meeting, "Wow! You can speak good English!" Similar comments are in fact quite common. On two occasions I was asked, "Are you from Africa?" I answered, "No, why do you ask?" These individuals stated rather apologetically that they never met a native black person "who could speak properly." Furthermore, students and faculty alike will state explicitly that I am "unlike any black person they have met." Some may view these statements as insulting or condescending, but I feel differently. I strive to build good rapport with my students and colleagues; therefore I invite them to speak with candor. Negative and inaccurate stereotypes continue to fester when these delicate questions go unasked and unanswered.

Answering the call has led me to build community far beyond the halls of the chemistry departments. My mission has been to share my knowledge, interests, personality, and uniqueness with the impressionable minds of an expansive and diverse academic community. At Notre Dame I served on the head staff of a residence hall for 4 years, which become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. At Rose-Hulman I volunteered to become the new faculty adviser for Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. Not surprisingly, I was the only black person in the chapter. The members liked me and proudly told their friends that "Dr. Seymore is really cool." Subsequently, they welcomed me into their brotherhood by initiating me as an honorary member of the fraternity. Is it not time to remove historical barriers that segregate our society?

Removing Stereotypes

I believe that my presence at PWIs has done more to improve race relations and to eradicate stereotypes than any other activity that I could have performed. Thus, I strongly believe that white students need black faculty. Some black persons belittle my efforts, stating that "white students will believe what they want [regardless of my race]." I respond by stating that white students have consistently treated me with dignity and respect; they see me as an individual and not a stereotype.

I hope that our good rapport will positively influence the way my students view and interact with minorities in the future. Although it is certainly true that a person of any race has the ability to teach chemical principles and conduct laboratory research, I have taught my students--often inadvertently and unintentionally--something that surpasses academics. I regard this "societal" aspect of my teaching as one of my most important contributions to the academic community.

Final Thoughts

This unique ability to build a community is a compelling reason for colleges and universities to strive for faculty diversity, which unfortunately is difficult to attain in academic science. The vast majority of black doctoral candidates--particularly in chemistry--seek industrial careers. For the handful who enter academia, many join the faculty of HBCUs. In the case of two black colleagues who also chose the academic route, they returned to their undergraduate HBCU alma maters. In my experience as a graduate student and faculty member, I can say that these PWIs have made sincere efforts to attract minority faculty, but the pool of interested candidates is tiny.

It is increasingly common for promising young faculty to leave academia. After considerable reflection, I have also decided to leave, in part to answer the call to share my scientific knowledge with a wider audience. My primary purpose for entering graduate school was to prepare for the professoriate. Teaching is dear to my heart, so I find it difficult to envision a career in which students are not intimately involved. But aside from teaching, I have found few rewards as a professor. I still have a great deal to contribute to the scientific community, but I'm finding that academic science defines too rigidly how success is attained and quantified. At the same time, I belong to a cohort of young Ph.D. scientists who are attracted to alternative careers that encourage us to transcend traditional boundaries and stereotypes. So moving to law actually provides an opportunity for me to find and build community, both of which are important. As one young lawyer-scientist said to me recently, "In the legal profession, your chemistry Ph.D. will be appreciated." I can envision a future in intellectual property, in science policy, as university counsel, or possibly in a nontraditional faculty appointment that will allow me to combine my legal knowledge with my scientific expertise.

Sean Seymore was an assistant professor of chemistry at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He will begin studies at Notre Dame Law School this fall. Please send e-mail to

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