I met Professor Mahurin on the first day of Introduction to African American Literature, a requirement for all African American Studies majors, during the spring semester of my sophomore year. “If you don’t like participating,” she said with a serious look on her face, “then this class is not for you.” I’m a shy student and immediately resolved to drop the class. But I remembered that it was a requirement for me and so I decided to stick it out.

I’m really not sure where I would be as a student or as a person today if it weren’t for that reluctant decision I made two years ago. Since that class, Professor Mahurin has become my advisor within the African American Studies department, my thesis advisor, my mentor, my advocate, my role model, and my friend.

Professor Mahurin has challenged me tremendously as a student and as a learner. I am a serious student but I took Professor Mahurin’s classes more seriously than I took any other classes I have taken at Wesleyan. I respected and admired the texts she taught because of the respect and admiration she so clearly has for them, and for this reason those texts have stuck with me years later. As a student in Professor Mahurin’s class, she continuously pushed me out of my comfort zone. Although she knew I hated it, she directed questions toward me during class discussions to draw me out of my shell. She challenged the claims I made in papers and gave this former straight-A student her first B. She sat next to me during a talk in the chapel and pinched me until I stood up and asked the question I had scribbled down but had been too shy to ask. A few months ago, I asked her to read the drafts of my Fulbright application essays and she called me an hour after I had sent them and said, “I don’t like this.” I wanted to crawl in a hole and give up but she worked with me until I had something both the Fulbright director and I were happy with. When I told her I would be presenting a section of my senior thesis at Yale this coming February, she immediately pulled out her phone and entered the date of my presentation in her calendar. “Please, no!” I had pleaded. “I’m going to be nervous enough as it is. “Oh I’m coming. I’m going to ask you a question,” she said defiantly.

Professor Mahurin is also my mentor within the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), which is a program that seeks to address the underrepresentation of minority students in academia. She has supported me through every presentation, every deadline, and every hiccup I have encountered in this program. I recently visited the University of California at Berkeley, a graduate school I was considering because of its renowned doctorate program in African American Studies. I was incredibly nervous before my meeting with a faculty member and called Professor Mahurin before going in. She took a break from her own work and helped me generate a list of important questions to ask about teaching requirements, quality of life, and course work. After the Berkeley professor stood me up, Professor Mahurin spoke to me candidly about my options for graduate school and helped me generate a list of schools that might be a better fit. My experience with Professor Mahurin as my MMUF mentor exemplifies how wonderful and supportive the MMUF program can be for students of color pursuing careers in academia. I believe that Wesleyan, a school that boasts an unparalleled commitment to diversity, needs Sarah Mahurin and more professors like her who are committed to supporting students of color in the way that she has supported me.

I was initially drawn to Wesleyan because of its African American Studies program. When I visited the school it seemed that everyone I met was an African American Studies major or had taken classes in the department. This, combined with the relatively high percentage of students of color at Wesleyan, gave me the impression that Wesleyan as an institution was seriously committed to fostering a diverse community. In the four years I have been here I have consistently been disappointed by the African American Studies department, which has so few faculty members that students in the major cannot complete all of our requirements. For me, Professor Mahurin is the beacon of hope in the department. She advises approximately half of the majors and offers classes that not only fulfill major requirements—which allows students to continue to major in African American Studies—but are also challenging and inspiring. She attends meetings and guest lectures and generally demonstrates enthusiasm for the department in a way that has been seriously lacking. And her enthusiasm is contagious; there are more majors and prospective majors now than I’ve ever seen.

Moreover, the first African American Studies classes I took at Wesleyan were under enrolled and the majority of the students in my classes were of color; the general sentiment seemed to be that African American Studies classes were only for African American students. Four years later, Professor Mahurin’s spring semester classes filled up so quickly she decided to offer an additional section at 9am. Forty-two people showed up for fifteen seats. And this is Wesleyan… nobody gets up at 9am unless they have to. Never in recent memory have African American Studies classes at Wesleyan been in such high demand.

Last semester, I was Professor Mahurin’s teaching assistant for Introduction to African American literature, the same course I had taken as a shy sophomore. During every class I was aware of the fact that it was the most diverse classroom I had ever been in at Wesleyan. This kind of diversity in a classroom is extremely important. It often makes for uncomfortable discussions and awkward moments but it forces students who ordinarily sit on opposite ends of Usdan to come together and talk meaningfully about race, class, gender, and identity—all within the context of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. If Wesleyan truly wants to honor its commitment to diversity—the diversity of its student body and the diversity of knowledge—Sarah Mahurin must stay.

I work in the Office of Admissions as a senior interviewer and I am continuously asked, “why Wesleyan?” or some variation of that question. My response is always the same: I talk about the relationship I have with my professors. I didn’t think about this aspect of my college experience at all when I was touring schools as a high school student, but it has been a defining aspect of my experience at Wesleyan, largely due to my relationship with Professor Mahurin. I briefly share with prospective students and their parents the anecdotes I have shared in this testimonial, and then I tell them about the time I got sick during reading period my junior year. I had a nasty throat infection that the health center couldn’t diagnose or cure and they recommended that I go to the emergency room. I emailed Professor Mahurin to express my concern about being able to complete my finals on time. When she called me on my cell phone a few minutes later she was already on her way to my dorm. She drove me half way to New York City so I could be closer to my parents and during our ride she helped me come up with a plan to contact my dean, contact my professors, and complete my finals. She checked in every day for the next few days to make sure I was okay. This is one of many experiences I have had with Professor Mahurin that have convinced me that she cares deeply for me and for all of her students as human beings, not just as WesID numbers on an enrollment list. “That,” I say tell these students and their parents, “is why Wesleyan.”

Hardy is a member of the class of 2014.

  • anon

    this is a nice story of a personal relationship with a professor but i’m not sure it’s the most graceful reaction to what is probably an inevitable step in professor mahurin’s career and family life. instead we should focus on making afam’s search to replace her the most constructive and dialogue-producing process possible.

    • Elsa Hardy

      If you have ideas as to how to revitalize the African American Studies program and are willing to act on them, I would love to have a conversation with you. Shoot me an email: ehardy@wesleyan.edu. There is a lot that needs to be done. If the pattern continues, however, Professor Mahurin will leave and won’t be replaced. AFAM currently has two unfilled lines from professors who left years ago.

      As someone who is extremely close to Professor Mahurin and has an immense amount of respect for her, I would not publish a public statement such as this one if I believed it would in any way hinder a positive step in her career or family life. It seems naive to think that I would become involved in this movement without first doing my homework. While you may think my post was ungraceful, it is not coming from a selfish or a thoughtless place.

      All I hope to do is give Professor Mahurin the choice to stay at Wesleyan. Even if she chooses not to stay, she deserves to have that choice given everything she has done for our community.