A Committee That Cared

Melissa Nicolas writes about professors who saw a candidate as a human being first.

October 8, 2014

The leaves are painted; the air is crisp; football games occupy entire weekends. Must mean one thing — the job search season is upon us. Before this year’s job-seekers are completely overwhelmed by cover letters, C.V.s, and dossiers, before the academic jobs wiki starts compiling horror stories about insensitive, rude and downright mean search committees, I want to share a story about my experience on last year’s market that I hope will give this year’s applicants some faith in the kindness and humanity of our colleagues in academe. What follows is a tale of incredible compassion and caring — in the context of the academic search process — that goes way beyond professional ethics.

As with most job-seekers, when I was on the market last year, I threw many irons in the fire. While I got the usual silent treatment from some departments that never even acknowledged receiving my materials, some of my applications were met with emails informing me that my application had arrived safely. This simple confirmation that the tome I sent was in the right hands did much to allay the early stress of the search process. In addition to these timely acknowledgements, several departments noted their timeline for contacting candidates of their selection for initial interviews and kept true to their word, notifying me of my status, up or down, within their stated deadline.

One such institution, I’ll call it Midwestern State, set up a Skype interview before the holidays. Unlike many Skype interviews where the committee seems uncomfortable and awkward with the technology, this search committee had its act together. The committee members seated themselves in such a way that I could see them all easily, and when we did have a slight blip with the technology, they knew immediately how to fix it. They worked hard to make me feel comfortable, to make me feel as though we were having an actual conversation instead of a formal interview. At the end of our time, they again noted their timeline for deciding on finalists, and true to their word, I was delighted to receive a campus invitation within the timeline they stated.

Midwestern State made all the travel arrangements for my trip, making certain that the dates for the visit were compatible with my teaching schedule and that the flight schedule worked with my personal schedule. Questions about what was being paid up front and what was going to be reimbursed were answered forthrightly before I left home.

Traveling to Midwestern State from the East Coast in January is always a crapshoot. Your odds of getting to your destination on the first try are about 50-50, worse if you are connecting in Chicago as I was. Odds were not in my favor as my connecting flight out of O’Hare was canceled not one but four times, pushing my expected arrival back by 36 hours, well into the campus interview schedule and stranding me overnight in a city that was not my home. The chair of the  committee was constantly in touch during this time, making sure I found a hotel to stay in (at Midwestern’s expense), ensuring that I had enough to eat, working with me to decide if I should try to fly home or be persistent in trying to get to Midwestern.

And all this time, the committee was frantically rescheduling portions of my visit to make sure that my shortened stay would still accomplish everything that needed to get done. When I finally arrived after midnight a day later than I was supposed to, a committee member and a basket of fruit, cheeses, and snacks greeted me at the airport. My chauffeur even offered me a brief guided tour of the downtown as we made our way to the hotel. He escorted me into the hotel, helping me with my baggage, and assuring that all was fine with the reservation.

At this point, tired and jet-lagged, I was nevertheless excited to get to the campus interview a few hours later because I was already loving these people. While getting there had been a travel nightmare, the committee, especially the chair, understood what I was going through and worked very hard to alleviate as much of the stress on their end as they possibly could. The kindness of the ample snack basket is just one example of the thoughtfulness. While this may seem like a small gesture to some, to me it spoke volumes about the way this group thought about me as a flesh-and-blood person first and a job candidate second. I could end this story here and have made my point. This search was one of the best experiences I have had in my career. However, the story doesn’t end here.

Because of the adjustments that had to be made to my schedule, my job talk was scheduled as the first activity of my first day. The talk was well-attended, the questions were thoughtful and the subsequent conversation was exciting.  People assured me that there was not only a place for my work at Midwestern but a genuine desire for it as well. The good vibes continued until about an hour later, when I started to get an incredibly sharp pain in my stomach.  I already had my appendix and gallbladder out, so I assumed I was experiencing some gastric distress, understandable after eating two days' worth of airport food, so I discreetly asked the search chair if someone could get me some gas pills.  However, the pain increased quickly and exponentially to the point that even before someone could get back from the drugstore, I could no longer put on a brave face.

Embarrassed and scared, I agreed, at the urging of the committee members, to go back to my hotel room and relax.  They would cancel the rest of the afternoon, and we would reconvene for dinner later that night. The ride back to the hotel was excruciating and after trying in vain to lie down to get some relief, I knew I needed to get to the hospital.  I staggered down to the hotel lobby, and someone from the hotel got me to the ER. By the time I was registering, I could no longer stand, and the pain was so intense I felt as though I was being ripped in two. Within two hours, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening bowel obstruction that required immediate surgery. There was no way I could fly home to have it done, nor could it wait until someone from my family could make their way to Midwestern. I was alone in a strange city, facing major surgery that had serious risks of complications. I was on major painkillers and being asked to make a major life decision.

But I was not really alone. The details of how this happened are fuzzy, but somehow word got to the search committee about what was happening and before long, the search committee chair was by my side. I thanked her for checking in and expected her to leave after 15 minutes or so, but she stayed for close to five hours, interpreting what the doctors were saying to me, helping me get in touch with my family, and holding my hand when I was overwhelmed.  She did not leave until they wheeled me away for surgery.  In a strange city with no relatives for hundreds and hundreds of miles, I was not abandoned in my time of need.

And the caring did not stop. I was not able to fly home for about a week after my surgery. The English faculty at Midwestern State took it upon themselves to arrange a schedule so that I would have at least one visitor a day — sometimes two or three. When they asked me what I needed, I told them sweatpants, socks, and something to read. I received so many of each that I couldn’t bring them all home with me. On Superbowl Sunday, two professors stopped by to ask if I wanted company to watch the Superbowl.  When I admitted that I wasn’t really a football fan, they admitted they weren’t either, but they didn’t like the thought of me sitting in the hospital during such a huge cultural event.

One morning, the search committee chair handed me an envelope with a substantial amount of cash in it. She told me that the department had taken up a collection because they thought I would be able to use the money to fly my husband out or for all the unexpected expenses my hospitalization caused. This gesture brought me to tears. When I was released from the hospital, Midwestern State paid for my hotel room and my food, and arranged to pick up my sister (who had flown in from Denver to help me fly home) at the airport. 

After I finally arrived home, Midwestern gave me the option of flying back out to finish my interview or completing the visit via Skype. Given that the recovery process from this kind of surgery is long, I opted for the Skype version. Once again, the committee members went out of their way to ensure that the virtual campus visit was seamless. And every person I spoke with that day, from the graduate students to the dean, asked me how I was feeling.

My experience with Midwestern State, in the end, turned out to be so much more than an interview  In addition to getting to know potential colleagues as fellow academics, I got to know them as human beings, as people who are thoughtful, sensitive, generous, caring, patient, and overwhelmingly giving. During the course of what was one of the worst medical situations of my life, I experienced some beautifully human moments.  While I hope no one on this year’s market has any kind of medical crisis, I do hope you get a chance to experience the generosity of an authentic and caring search committee who values you, first and foremost, as a person.   


Melissa Nicolas is an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno. She did receive an offer from Midwestern State.


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