For students, faculty, and staff, thoughts of Baruch’s elevators typically evoke a variety of frustrations: remembrances of long lines, out of order signs, and tight squeezes. As in most busy Manhattan high-rises, this experience has become practically archetypal. But, as many long-time members of the Baruch community know, sources of consternation can suddenly, and unexpectedly, give way to moments of surprise and delight.
In the middle of the second day of the Appreciative Inquiry Summit, an event which is part of the College’s five-year strategic planning process, Harold Ramdass, a Lecturer in the English Department, made his way to the elevator on the 14th floor of the Newman Vertical Campus Building. He held the door as a woman ran towards it, and as she entered her familiar appearance struck him. Unsure of exactly how he knew her, he decided not to approach. Then suddenly, he realized who she was. “What is your name? Are you…Debra Phillip?” he asked. She turned surprised, tilting her name tag towards him. “Yes, I’m Debra Phillip.” “You were my student!” he said. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years.
Harold Ramdass, himself an alum of Baruch’s undergraduate English program, went on to earn his PhD at Princeton in 2007. A Chaucerian by trade, Ramdass has been teaching the Great Works Courses at Baruch for two decades, beginning as an adjunct in 2002. Of Indo-Trinidadian descent, familiar with Hindu and Muslim traditions, and a product of Catholic School, Ramdass is a perfect fit for the Great Works program, which seeks to give all Baruch students, regardless of major or ambition, a grounding in a historical and global view of the literary imagination.
“Throughout the years, I have always remembered Debra,” Ramdass said. “She took my Great Works class very early in my teaching career at Baruch. And she sat up front.”
One of the first texts the class took on that Fall of 2002 or 2003 was the biblical book of Genesis. Ramdass likes to take risks with familiar texts when he’s teaching.
“I want students to challenge the way they think about texts, the way they read them. To look at something very familiar as something new. To look at the actual language rather than merely replicating the received cultural reading.”
He acknowledged at the outset that though three monotheistic faiths regard Genesis as holy scripture, his aim was to push the class to see the text in a new light. In particular, he guided his students to think about the two contrasting points of view embodied by Adam and Eve. “On the one hand, we see Adam’s reliance on received authority, the word of God, and on the other, Eve’s more empirical method. Given two conflicting sources of information, Eve figures the only way to discover the true nature of the fruit, is to try it.”
Around this time, Ramdass noticed that Phillip was having a very hard time. She looked uncomfortable in class. Always attentive to his students’ reactions, Ramdass asked her to stay after. Phillip explained that the discussion made her uncomfortable because she felt that this text was a spiritual text, a religious text, and if one were to remove the spiritual significance, as Ramdass had, he had no chance of understanding it. Ramdass reassured her, “I’m not here to tell you what to believe, only to experiment and see what happens.”
Debra Phillip too remembers their semester-long debate. “Here I am taking this class, and this young guy is using the Bible as a textbook,” she said. “And he’s telling me that I have to try to separate spirituality from my reading of it? That’s where the tension started between us. Everything he said, I had to answer. And I never gave up.”
Ramdass reflected, “As a teacher, I couldn’t be happier. What more could you want? And I could tell, throughout this experience that she didn’t know what her comfort level should be with me or with the kind of work we were doing.”
But Ramdass said that it was the last day of class that really lingered in his mind. Phillip stayed after once again to speak to him. “She said, ‘I still believe the Bible is spiritual and religious and there is a right way to read it,’ but she told me she got something very important out of the class. In church, whenever the pastor launched into a misogynistic interpretation of the Bible, she could now go to the same passage, the same textual moment, and argue her own interpretation.’ And I said to her, ‘this is amazing, that is exactly it, you have done amazingly.’”
Phillip, who remains deeply committed to Christianity, also remembered the conversation. “At that time, when I was in search of a place to worship, I encountered a pastor who made comments that were misogynistic. And the professor did make me think. He had me looking at things a little more in depth. It couldn’t be the case that just because the pastor told me ‘do x, y, z,’ I should do it. No. It was my responsibility to do my very own reading and pray to God that the spirit will reveal things to me. Luckily, my pastor now is one of character and integrity that pushes me to develop a relationship with the Word.”
Ramdass felt a connection with Debra in part because both trace their roots to the Caribbean, and both had an implicit understanding of the unifying role that religion played in the diaspora. “I’ve always been mindful of my experience with Debra when teaching and especially when creating my various documents and job application materials. She was significant to me.”
These application materials eventually landed Ramdass a full-time Lecturer position in the English Department. “It’s a life changing appointment,” Ramdass said, who had spent many years stretched between adjunct roles at Baruch, Cooper Union, and Lehman College. “I can finally put all my focus on Baruch students.” His passion for students was another connection he would share with Debra Phillip.
Phillip, a single mom of two who left Grenada in the 90s to build a life in the US, graduated from BMCC with honors, and then began pursuing her BBA at Baruch while working full time as a nanny and housekeeper for several families in Manhattan. She went on to finish her degree at Lehman College in 2015. “I finally decided that I wanted to be helping students.” Phillip said. “If I could make a difference for even one person, it would be worth it.”
Her drive sent her to pursue her MA in Childhood Education at Brooklyn College. “As I was nearing graduation, my college advisor asked, ‘Are you going to do your masters?’ I told her there was no way! I didn’t have the money. She said, ‘Never say never,’ and gave me the information for the CUNYCAP program.
CUNYCAP, which provides financial support and employment opportunities to CUNY graduates that go on to pursue graduate degrees, helped connect Phillip with Baruch College’s Office of Enrollment Management. She has gone on to join the Baruch community more permanently as the Enrollment & Retention Coordinator in Office of Undergraduate Advisement & Orientation. For the past seven years, she’s been able to follow her passion for helping students realize their full potential and develop their educational goals. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she said, “Though I have struggled in my life, I always have something to draw on to relate to the students who come to me. Helping them is everything to me.”
Ramdass saw the spark in Phillip that first day she sat down in his class. “When you meet Debra, there’s a light in her. She’s special. But at that time, she also seemed to be dealing with a lot. My class might have stressed her out in some ways.” Ramdass laughs, “But now when I see her, I see a person who has totally come into herself. After all these years, it’s quite amazing.”