Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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How I Get By: Mary-Faith Cerasoli

Full 12162013 cerasoli

We’ve had plenty of conversations with students and professors about the everyday sacrifices it takes to make a go of it in academia. In our How I Get By series, we’re sharing some of those scholars’ stories.

Close your eyes. Picture a homeless person.

The image you’ll likely see is that of a man with matted hair, vacant eyes, and leathery skin. He’s probably wearing torn clothes, with an odor that hits you from a good distance away.

Now open your eyes and look at the photo above of Mary-Faith Cerasoli.

She’s a professionally dressed middle-aged woman with a careworn face, hair swept back prettily over her ears, plucked eyebrows, rouged lips, and manicured nails. She’s an adjunct professor who teaches Spanish and Italian at the Bronx and Manhattan campuses of Mercy College and Nassau Community College in Long Island. She has a life-threatening thyroid disease, and she’s homeless.

Since fall of 2010, when the 52-year-old started adjuncting, Cerasoli has had to rely on the kindness of friends to survive because her pay is so meager. Over the past six months she’s had to move four times. Her annual salary for teaching five courses per semester is around $22,000 before taxes. Because she has no health insurance, she goes to a specialty clinic in Manhattan, where she has racked up thousands of dollars in medical bills.

To get to classes, Cerasoli commutes five days and a total of 300 miles a week from Westchester, N.Y., where she is staying in the basement of a friend’s home, to the Bronx and Manhattan. She had been relying on her bike and public transportation until the owner of an auto shop in Peekskill, N.Y. noticed her frequent trips and gave her a 10-year-old Pontiac Vibe from his lot.

Cerasoli’s students don’t know that she is barely getting by. She tells her story in the edited transcript that follows.

On becoming an adjunct professor:

I’m not married and I have no children. I’ve always been a career girl. Before I got into higher education, I worked in the music industry in Italy. I traveled with stars like Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder as their interpreter.

Today I’m a professor and I don’t have a mailing address.

I have a master’s degree from Middlebury College and I taught AP language courses at the high school level for 10 years. In 2011 my teaching licenses expired. I couldn’t afford to pay the license fees, and for the extra coursework I would have needed to become a permanent teacher. Because I couldn’t work around the state bureaucracy, I had to stop teaching high school.

After teaching high school for a decade I thought that being an adjunct would be a piece of cake, but I didn’t know the realities of being an adjunct. I didn’t know about the salary. My first position was at Mercy College. The chair of the Spanish department needed somebody to teach at the last minute. In a very embarrassed tone, he told me that the salary was only $2,000 per course. He was apologetic because he knew how bad it was. But I took it because I needed the work. I’ve done some substitute teaching and tutoring on the side.

On her living arrangement

By 2011 I couldn’t afford to rent out a room because I didn’t have enough money. In the summers I was denied unemployment benefits. All of my things are in storage at a friend’s car dealership. I’ve been sleeping around in friend’s homes all summer. Right now I sleep in a cold basement at a friend’s house in southern Westchester. The couple recently sold their home because the husband retired and they can’t afford the high taxes. They will have to vacate the home soon and so will I.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I don’t have time to deal with it now. I have to stay focused on teaching. When you’re an adjunct, you have to cross every “t” and dot every “i” because you don’t know if they’re going to renew your contract.

On her daily commute:

I start my days around eight in the morning, and I spend two to six hours commuting each day from Westchester to Long Island. The car is old but it’s my office. Everything is in the car—two heavy bags of textbooks, student papers, chalk, and dry erase markers. I’ve been averaging a flat tire every month.

I spend $60 a week on gas, $15 per day on tolls and $100 a month for car insurance. I got one new tire last month and that cost me $100. I still have to get two more. My muffler’s going to go any day now. There’s a loud banging noise, like the car on The Beverly Hillbillies. I’ve been lucky enough to find a secret parking space in the city, where I take my bike out of the trunk and ride to class. It saves me time and money.

On physical and mental health:

Though I’m not paying rent, I have to put just about all my money toward everything I need to teach—my car, my cellphone, and my food.

Food costs me $150 to $200 a week. I don’t have time to cook at home. Depending on my schedule, I eat only one meal a day. I’ve lost 15 pounds in the past year because I had to cut back on meals. I’m 5’5” and I now weigh 120 pounds. Between classes I have to run out to Fairway and buy packages of baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced cheese, or mixed green salads. These are foods I snack on while I’m correcting papers.

I have a life-threatening thyroid disease. Because I don’t have health insurance, I have thousands of dollars in medical bills that I owe. My credit is ruined. I have around $60,000 in student loans. I’ve been on food stamps and tried to get on disability, but I was denied because I teach five courses which they count as full time and so I’m not eligible. I won’t be eligible for Medicare for two years.

I see professors crying in the faculty offices because they can’t afford health insurance or handle all the stress coming from students who don’t have a good foundation in their native English tongue. Some students won’t buy the textbook because it’s so expensive. They come to me in tears and say, “I can’t afford the textbook.”

Adjuncts are on the front lines and all of these problems are getting dumped on us. When you’re an adjunct you have no place to run and hide. You don’t have an office where you can lock the door. The students don’t know about our working conditions. They expect you to have office hours and they think you’re always available. But I spend so much time on commuting that I can’t hang out on campus. I have to constantly move around and can’t afford to pay extra tolls to meet with students. I tell them to send me emails and there’s no make-up exams.

With everything I’m up against, all I can do is take one day at a time. I can’t think about all my problems because I’ll have a mental breakdown. To survive, I live minimally and I get by with the help of my friends. One friend gave me a car for free and others have let me stay in their homes. Some friends have sent me money from Rome because the Euro is higher than the dollar. Without their help I don’t think I’d be here.

Photo: Frank Reiser

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