See It to Be It: Higher Education Industry

By Amy C. Waninger

About the series: See It to Be It is an interview series highlighting professional role models in a variety of industries. The goal of this series to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support systems available for people of color within the industry

This interview features Dr. Jose Rodriguez, who goes by “Dr. J.” Dr. J is a professor of communications at Long Beach State University in Long Beach, California. You can learn more about him at

LC:     Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in academia / higher education and what about it appealed to you?

DrJ:    I got into it because I know the, the pretty typical story that you have going to college, you know, your family tells you that that’s the thing to do and at least in my family, you have to either be a doctor or lawyer or some other profession of that ilk. And I thought, well, I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be a doctor, so I’m going to be an engineer. I started out as an engineering major and I just got tired of doing math, if I can be perfectly frank. By the time I finished a third semester of calculus, I was done. And so I took this general education class in communication, and we were studying small group communication. We would get together in groups and discuss topics and share ideas. I thought that was revolutionary, because up until that point I really didn’t have experience with communication in the classroom.

I just fell in love with it. I thought, “Wow, this is really cool. I think that this might be my thing.” And the next semester, I switched my major to Communications Studies. I started working with one of my favorite professors, who became a mentor and one thing just led to another. So it wasn’t like I had this grand vision of, “Gosh, yes, I wanted to be a professor since I was four years old.” That wasn’t me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was quite confusing and I just stumbled onto what I do. I developed a nice relationship with some colleagues at the university. I got into a good master’s program and then just created a trajectory really through networking.

LC:    What has been the biggest surprise to you about being a professor that you didn’t realize before you “arrived”?

DrJ:    The thing that surprised me the most was the variety of activities that one needs to perform as a college faculty member. I got into teaching because I like to teach, and I like the interaction with students. I like being in the classroom. I like getting into discussions. I like lecturing. I like having that experience where you share a concept or an idea and it makes sense to somebody. They get it, their eyes light up and all of a sudden they are impacted in some positive ways. I really liked that, and I thought that that was the majority of the show, but know that that’s not the majority. In fact, that’s just one third.

There’s this whole thing about publishing and being on committees with service obligations. I’ve found that to be surprising and extremely time consuming. And not that it’s bad, it’s not typically my thing. I think in most areas of academia, people have their strengths or their weaknesses or their preferences and my preference is on the teaching side of things. Service and academic publishing are great and I’ve done some of that, but that isn’t really where my passion lies.

LC:    If somebody is not in academia / higher education today and they are looking for a way to learn more, where would you recommend that they go?

DrJ:    The best way to do this is through a mentor who has already “arrived.” If you find a professor or a colleague who is really a mentor, that’s really the best way to find out if the career is for you. Usually when you go to grad school, especially if you’re getting a PhD, you’re going to have a committee of people that are working with you as you finish your dissertation. And you usually have a faculty mentor or advisor that that guides you, that writes letters of recommendation, and that has you on their research team. And that is the primary way that you get socialized into the process of becoming a professor.

Another thing that people tend to do is go to conferences and networking events where graduate students can create a growing body of colleagues across the globe or across the United States. Most people get hired that way. Just like an almost any other industry, networking becomes very critical. It becomes a part of your professional practice, and it’s a great way to find out if the profession is right for you.

LC:    What are some organizations that exist to help POC feel supported and connected within the academia?

DrJ:    What’s really exciting is that there are more and more programs available for persons of color and individuals from historically marginalized groups, programs like BUILD, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, and RISE. These are programs with both a national and on-campus presence, designed to help students from minority groups form a relationship with a faculty mentor in a larger community that will help them navigate the murky waters of their professional development.

I know that the BUILD community in particular goes out to junior colleges and does some pretty heavy recruiting to let students know that these resources are available. They’re not just waiting for students to come to them, but really allowing students to know that the resources are available by going out into the community.

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