Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How I Get By: Mary-Faith Cerasoli

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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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10 Comments
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  • A thousand thank yous and a lifetime of blessings to both Stacey Patton and Mary-Faith Cerasoli. I wept reading what was essentially my story 1995-2003 (graduate assistant and fellowship) and 2003-2011 (VT and NH adjunct). All I can say is a simple appeal to the administrators, trustees, legislators, and corporate funders of the higher education outsourcing epidemic -- adjuncts are the backbone of the postmodern university; this crisis is an opportunity to harness the resiliency, genius, hard work, intelligence, creativity, and beauty my colleagues around the country demonstrate day in and day out by the tens if not hundreds of thousands. These are my friends; these are my colleagues. These good people started a mission they fully intend to finish, becoming the best teachers and best higher educators under the worst possible economic conditions that still have little to do with the economic downturn.

    You see, the economic downturn and endless administrative waste and Executive Team criminal neglect for the welfare of their teachers didn't simply start once day in 2006 or 2007 when the housing market and banking market and credit markets crashed. We had witnessed already two decades of problems related to contingency and the devastating effect it took on curriculum, retention, graduation, job security, private/public partnerships, and the entrepreneurial spirit in general. The economic crises exacerbated chronic ailments that had already gone untreated -- not undiagnosed, not unknown, but untreated. As in, willfully ignored. As in, contingency will lead to an internal outsourcing of talent, increase stress on all systems internal and external to the contemporary college and university.

    Put simply, learning conditions and economic conditions had been for decades linked. We know through countless accreditation self-studies and journal research, books, seminars, countless conferences, etc. what administrators, trustees, and the rest choose to ignore (like the factory boss who is shocked, shocked to learn there are illegal workers processing chicken parts). So, can we all stop acting surprised? Thanks.

  • The plight of adjuncting in the U.S. has been well documented within the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed circles of academe, but the public at large is mostly unaware of it. Part of the reason is that the rest of middle-class America is mired in its own deep economic struggles, which virtually consume their every waking moment, and the perception still persists that academics, including adjuncts, have a cushy work life. Until the rest of America learns of the dirty large secret of adjuncting, its deplorable conditions will continue. Perhaps Pope Francis, ostensibly a new friend to the world's economically downtrodden, will look into the matter at least at Catholic colleges, which claim an exemption from adjunct unionization on the basis of religion.

    Ray James
  • Is there any real chance this woman will ever acquire a stable, good paying job in academe? No. Or, negligible. Is there any chance that she could become self-supporting and relatively safe if she took up some other career. Yes. The origins of the problem seem obvious: she took up a field in which there were no reasonable chances of getting a good, stable job with her current credentials. Time to switch careers. Being a barista at Starbucks strikes me as better than this.

    Dana R.
  • Yes, the precarious, deplorable conditions of adjuncts are well documented. I have nothing to say, except: a) I really lament this situation; b) I would like to help Professor Cerasoli - although not sure how. Is there any way I could contact her?

    Ivani Vassoler

    Ivani Vassoler
  • Perhaps time to bid adieu to this race of rodents. Teach overseas. It's a living, pays the bills and gets you some savings. Not the perfect answer, but really, where are we when the educated have these troubles?

    Joe S
  • This is a sad story, but surely I am not the only person wondering "why doesn't she do something else for a living?

    Larry Cebula
  • Ah, yes, the "why doesn't she go into another profession" arguments.

    1) She has a large amount of medical debt. Many employers will run background checks. $60,000 in debt is a huge security risk, and a Starbucks barista job would probably take a pass on her to prevent any possible embezzlement.

    2) She is older. If she is two years away from being able to collect Medicaid, then she is probably experiencing age discrimination in her search for employment.

    3) Many people outside academia do not understand why you aren't teaching. Many employers will take a pass on her simply because they think she'll leave for a teaching position the minute one opens up.

    4) The amount of time it takes to look for an "alternate academic career" is just as time consuming and emotionally draining as looking for a tenure-track position or trying to find enough adjunct work to stay out of poverty.

    5) She lives in an area with an extremely high cost of living. $22,000 a year is not a lot to get by on and it is only compounded by her lack of health insurance.

    Getting another job or career is not a simple solution given her debt, age, and the current U.S. economy.

    Rachel Neff
  • Stacey--thank you for telling Mary-Faith's story, and Mary-Faith, I stand with you. That colleges and universities are subjecting such a large sector of their core employees to this sort of outrage, with no substantial reforms accomplished under federal labor law, federal or state education codes, or even, in some cases, unions themselves, is barely believable. Slowly the stories come out. When I lived in VT for $22,000 per year, I drove to work for two winters in -30* weather without a heater. One hand to steer, and one hand in my armpit. Then, switch. I used live coals from the woodstove, shoveled out every morning to a big turkey roasting pan, to slide under the engine and warm up my old pick-up truck's oil pan at 5:00 am because I could not afford a tank heater. Then I sometimes had to shovel a 1/4 mile driveway by hand to make it to class on time. That ed code, labor code, unions, and administrators have ridden this weary workforce for so long, and with such heartlessness, is something verging on criminal. Many thanks, Stacey and Mary-Faith. Like Migrant Intellectual, I was sorrowed. But there is also a heroic story: how we cling, stubbornly, to what we do so well, and how we are able, year after year, to continue in the face of terrible barriers to serve students with magnificent dedication, and with the best , the very best, we can possibly summon.

  • Thank you Stacey for sharing your brilliant writing skills. I hope that your readers understood how many many years it takes to achieve this level of expertise in foreign language education. The issue at hand is not only the meager salary adjunct receives but the broken education system in our country, all levels, public and private, which does not enable and embrace educators of excellence. I have often been applauded by students while teaching, as if I had just performed a concert at Lincoln Center. I am at the top of my game after 17 years of foreign language pedagogical preparation under the auspices on NY state dept. of education and Middlebury College graduate studies. I have discovered that there is always the possibility of a full-time position in academe if you know the right person. I have recently discovered from the Director of Modern Languages at Mercy College who denied me a recommendation for a full time position after four years of rave reviews from my students, that an administrator shall promote their friends before they promote the accomplished ones. I was told to leave the state of NY in order to lower the competition for my cohorts from graduate school who were competing for the same jobs.

    Stacey's synopsis of my life as adjunct faculty evoked tears from the president's secretary at Mercy College, yet my director assigned me two courses less than usual after reading her interview.
    Thank you all for reading this column. If you would like to discuss anything further, I may be contacted at:
    mfcerasoli@gmail.com

  • A great thanks to your responses: Rachel Neff, Dr. Robert Baum, Ray James, Ivani Vassoler, Margaret Hanzimanolis, and especially Rachel Neff's perfect retort!
    mfcerasoli@gmail.com