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Obstacles

I never thought this would happen to me. Straight like that. I’m going to tell you about the only class I ever failed, because if I don’t nothing will get better. 

I began my studies at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in the fall of 2007. Becoming an Aggie was one of the best decisions of my life. From the jump, I participated in a variety of activities, student government, honor societies, greek life, homecoming, Aggie Fest, I even worked on campus in the Office of Disabilities as a notetaker. 

I truly love this university. I made lifelong friends, learned professionalism, history, heritage, I am better for it. I think back to my time on the yard. I Skyped with Chinua Achebe, met with Lloyd Bank$ at 90.1 WNAA, the first time I saw Jay-Z he came to campaign for President Obama on the steps of the old student union. I will never forget the night President Obama was elected. WNAA had Jeezy My President is Black on repeat for hours, everybody was on the yard, we needed hope the most. That momentous moment infused something into the character of my cohort. In that spirit of hope and change I am writing my story and making a recommendation. This is my truth. It has taken ten years to reflect and share it. If you’re not ready for my truth you don’t have to read this. 

Here we go, I was blessed with Dr. Michele Levy as my academic advisor freshman year. She was the director of the graduate school of the English Department and recommended I take her graduate level classes as my electives. In doing so I met many upperclassmen and graduate students. I learned the graduate level workload, reading a lot of literature and the respective theories. It was a lot. But it was worth it. In our early meetings, I shared with Dr. Levy that I wanted to study abroad. She suggested a full course load and summer school to stack up as many credits as possible since study abroad courses often don’t count towards a major. 

At that time I was always on campus. I began to connect with students in the English department and became close with Sharon and Ashley. They saved me hundreds of dollars by giving me their old books. I’ll never forget that. They also gave me advice about classes, scholarships, and professors. Both warned me about Dr. Gibreel Kamara and his Advanced Grammar and Argumentation course. They told me to watch out for him and to take his class in the summer to spend less time in his presence. Based on their kindness, insight, and generosity I took their counsel seriously and enrolled in the course the following summer.  

Advanced Grammar was the most difficult course I had undertaken in my academic career at that time. I found Dr. Kamara to be difficult to understand, sarcastic, and impatient as a professor. Whenever I had a question he would tell me to come to his office hours. Little to no help was given in class. He lectured and gave long explanations to questions without checks for understanding. I began going to his office hours during the summer session of my sophomore year. The conversation rarely remained on classwork, quizzes, or tests. He would tell me dismissively “don’t worry.” 

Dr. Kamara asked me what my summer plans were for the second session. I shared with him I was going to Memphis, TN to visit family. He asked me if I had a boyfriend there. I laughed. He went on to ask me about where I was from and how I found NC A&T. I answered him letting him know things were going great except for my grade in his class! I let him know I was on the Dean’s List and that I participate in organizations on campus which require a high grade point average. His line of questioning continued to stray from my grade to my personal life. At the time his questions didn’t feel intrusive, they were just annoying. You want to talk small while I am failing? No. 

I failed Dr. Kamara’s class that summer.  His middle school aged daughter began coming to class throughout the session. Once grades were posted I came to office hours to appeal and plead my case. Dr. Kamara’s daughter was sitting in his office when he told me “I’ll see you in the fall.” I was crushed. This was the only class I would ever fail. The F still sits on my academic transcript like a stain. 

Time went on as time tends to do. I continued doing my thing on campus and I persevered. I joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated and now was required to dress business professional on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In the fall, I enrolled in Advanced Grammar and Argumentation and tried it all again. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late afternoon. A few weeks into the course I had a C. I was not ok with the C, I am an A student. Again, I was told to come to office hours. The fall office hours were right after class so on this day I intended to walk with Dr. Kamara from the second floor classroom to his fourth floor office in the English Department. It was growing dark outside as class finished. As we walked towards the second floor stairwell Dr. Kamara insisted I go into the stairwell ahead of him. Since people tend not to believe you were sexually assaulted unless you give vivid details here you go. 

I would describe what Dr. Kamara did to me as we walked up the steps as a Trump. He reached between my legs through my skirt and grabbed me from front to back. I turned around. I was ready to kick him in the face, but he ran out of the stairwell on the third floor. I stood in the stairwell looking out the window baffled. There was no one around. Did he really just do that? 

I told my sorority sisters, I told my roommate, and I told my friend Rashaad. The advice I got that seemed like a good idea at the time was to write an anonymous letter to the head of the English department. I don’t remember why anonymity was so important at the time. I guess I didn’t want to rock the boat. It might have been because I had aspirations of studying abroad, for whatever reason at the time I really didn’t want the smoke. I just didn’t want him touching anyone else. 

I wrote, typed, printed, and slid my letter under the department chair’s door. Then I did what I do best, I kept moving forward. A week or so went by. I hadn’t been to class and I rarely missed any classes; my dad paid for my education out of his pocket. I kept replaying the situation back trying to figure out where I went wrong and how I would deal with this man in the classroom. The only thing that mattered was passing the course so I would be free of him. I got a call from the English Department for a meeting with the department chair. I figured he put it all together. Rashaad walked me there. After I told him what happened he walked me to class, events, and meetings. Sometimes he would stay and make sure I got home ok. So did Josh and so did Allante. My real friends and sisters always made sure I got to where I was going or that I linked up with a friend. I’ll never forget that either.

The department chair was bouncing around with a big smile. He was all over his office looking for things, his secretary sat on the desk smiling at me, and a classmate of mine Jessica who worked with them sat at his massive oak desk. Jessica’s chair faced me, her face was stone cold. She had heard what happened and called me. The department chair asks me, “do you know why you’re here?” Jessica discretely shook her head no towards me. The secretary smiled like Vanna White uncovering letters. I took a deep breath and told him it was because of the letter I wrote about Dr. Kamara. 

The earth stopped. The department chair was deflated. The secretary sat mouth agape. We stewed in that silence for a while before the department chair sat down next to me in shock. He went on to explain that the department was offering me a scholarship towards my study abroad venture in Switzerland the following semester. The silence returned. Eventually the department chair asked the secretary to look up my grade. It was a C. He told me that was my grade and to never go back to the class. He advised me that if Dr. Kamara said anything to me to let him know. 

I saw Dr. Kamara on campus once after this all transpired. I asked him how he would feel if someone did that to his daughter? Again, he again ran away. I do not believe this man should be trusted by any university around impressionable young minds. His classroom etiquette and his treatment of students is toxic. 

Not too long after the events went down I told my parents what happened. My dad was furious, “I’m paying $10,000 a year for this?” My dad came to school and met with the department chair. We were then sent to human resources. It became obvious that outside of us taking legal action nothing would or could be done. When given the option, I decided not to take legal action. A lawyer told me we could own the school but that did not sound appealing or like the path I wanted for my life. Lawyers advised me that the school would look into my sexual history and after a very painful break up and didn’t want that at all. That was not how I wanted to use my energy and I knew a day like this one would come where I could say what happened on my terms in a way that can make a positive impact. 

I stopped coming to campus as much and asked my roommate if we could move further from campus. She agreed. At the end of Fall semester I went to stay with my mom and from there I went to Europe for the Spring semester. Upon my return from Switzerland I reflected a lot. Morale shifted when my cousin Ryan came to help me move and readjust. I allocated my energy toward making a change on campus. I read the inadequate policies in the handbook and decided to run for a student government position with student safety as a priority. I wanted to make sure that what happened to me never happened to anyone else. Long story short, I lost. So I tried to reach out to the Chancellor directly.

First I tried to schedule a meeting, but that was unsuccessful. Emails also went unanswered. I began to visit the Chancellor’s office periodically at different times when I was on campus and over a few months span was never able to cross paths or meet with him to tell him about Dr. Kamara. I thought this was a matter worthy of his attention. I tried other paths. I was friends with the student body president and vice president of affairs. I told them what happened. Their response was pretty much that sucks. These young men would brag about their access to the chancellor and how they could text him. Unfortunately this was not a matter they deemed worth the Chancellor’s attention. My trust in men and in my safety and wellbeing on campus was shattered. Did I really fail or did my institution fail me? 

I met with Dr. Levy and we realized I had enough credits to graduate early. She encouraged me to stick around for the final semester of my senior year even though I was ready to go. I took her classes and one other International Studies course where I actually shared this story and was encouraged by my professor to write the first draft of this situation back in 2011. 

I am grateful for my trials and tribulations in life. This is what makes us who we are. However, I believe we can learn from each other’s experiences and do better. This speaks volumes to our culture. Man or woman like Lauryn Hill said, “respect is just the minimum.” Why do we let others harm us while we take the alleged high road of silence? 

This situation impacted my life and relationships in ways I am still making sense of. I learned what a friend is and isn’t, I reset my boundaries, and I found a way to speak out on my terms. At the end of the day, all universities should have protections and systems in place that put the wellbeing of students above all else, not just go through the motions of meaningless policies in a handbook. This is my recommendation to North Carolina A&T and all colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning. 

Dr. Kamara’s employment at North Carolina A&T came to an end several years after I graduated. He continues to teach in higher education institutions. Dr. Kamara, I forgive you. But my question remains, how would you feel if someone touched your daughter the same way you did me?

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1 Comment

  1. Traona Kearney

    OMG Jheri! I am DISGUSTED that this happened to you! I’m even more furious that nothing more was done…. I hope that your courage to speak out pushes the university to dig deeper into university issues and student safety, as well as the potential possibility that others were treated in the same manner. Girlfran…. his actions most certainly do not define you…. and your strength and resilience inspires me!!!

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