How Rutgers failed me

How a prestigious University with a world-renowned reputation for Women’s Studies let a promising female student slip through the cracks.

I transferred to Rutgers in the fall of 1978 with a 4.0 GPA from a smaller N.J. state school. I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to elevate my social status. I wanted to get control of my life, have access to the kind of power I needed to escape the lower socio-economic stratum into which I was born.

My older, distant cousin was a tenured professor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education at the time. He greased some skids with the EOF office* to accelerate my admission to Rutgers College, the oldest of the five schools in the University system. Rutgers was the best education you could find in the N.J. public system at the time.

Upon arriving at my new Piscataway dorm home, I was a little frazzled. I had been involved for three years with a violent and abusive boyfriend. He was controlling and did not like change. I needed to get away from him. We had broken up over the summer (again), and I moved into the dorm a free woman. I felt the new experience at Rutgers could really turn my life around.

Rutgers was ginormous. I didn’t get much in the way of academic advising or the coddling support I was used to at the state school. In fact, I wasn’t even able to transfer into my major, Computer Science (C.S.). I had to elect Economics as a major and hope I’d get admitted into the C.S. program in a subsequent semester. This particular matriculation glitch was never made clear to me. For my first semester, I figured I’d just take anything I was interested in to get accustomed to the new school. I unwittingly signing up for Calculus, Introduction to Logic, Chemistry, and Abnormal Psychology. (What?!) That combo was a really bad idea.

Where were the academic advisors?

I was wholly unprepared for the rigors of those courses. I also wasn’t able to make any friends. My roommate was a brilliant African-American girl, Cynthia. She had a lovely and loving family who’d come every weekend and visit with her. But, we didn’t click as friends, and I was essentially isolated in the midst of 30, 000 students. The classes were hard. I had a tough time with the course material. Most of my courses were large lecture halls where a TA taught most of the curriculum. I did have one professor, Dr. Lief, who took a particular interest in me. More about him later.

I started dating a musician who lived in New York City.

About mid-semester, the abusive boyfriend showed up at my dorm and made a huge scene. My RA chastised me for having him disrupt the floor. The ordeal ended with me outside, trying to calm him down. That effort resulted in a swift fist to my face that severed my lip when my tooth sliced through it. Blood streamed down my face, all over my new suede jacket, and I cried, and cried. I still wear that scar today.

The next day in class, I had a swollen lip and face. One classmate was an emergency paramedic. He told me sternly, “That’s not okay. You need to get some help.”

But there was no help to get. I had to live with it in silence. No one else said anything. Not anyone at the dorm; not any of my professors or any other classmates. We all pretended it didn’t happen.

I was failing my classes. The pressure was too much between the continued harassment from the ex-boyfriend and my school work. I wanted to escape. I started leaving school early and spending the evenings with the musician in New York. He was a minor rock star and afforded a glamorous diversion. He made me feel good about myself. He made me feel beautiful and interesting.

No one noticed I wasn’t attending classes. I figured that considering I had such a high GPA at the state college I had previously attended, I could just let this first semester slide, average out my GPA, and get serious after the winter break. The next semester, I’d buckle down and get back into the groove.

One afternoon, Dr. Lief called me on the pay phone on my hall floor. He said he wanted me to take the evening train from New Brunswick and come “visit” him at his home in Princeton. I told him, although I appreciated the gesture and was flattered, the answer was, “No, thank you.” For our last assignment in his class, I worked really hard on my final paper. I was certain it was A material. It was the only course that semester I really felt I’d mastered. When I got the paper back, it was graded a C. I was stunned he could be so shallow. Years later, I discovered he’d been fired by the university for sexual harassment.

The semester finally ended. I went home to my mother’s house for the holiday break. The letter came right before Christmas. Impersonal and to the point – I was academically dismissed. My previous 4.0 GPA didn’t matter. There was no averaging of my grades. I had failed the semester and could no longer return to the University. And that was that.

My mother said I could not move back home.

I had to move in with the abusive boyfriend. That winter, I had my first nervous breakdown.

*EOF is the Educational Opportunity Fund. A scholarship program for underprivileged students.

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