Note: Edited on August 20, 2021, in order to clarify some points that I did not communicate clearly in the first publication, which caused some hurt feelings with some former coworkers. That was never my intent because I care for those people very much and would never intentionally hurt anyone. People who know me well know my heart.
Growing up, I knew that my parents were careful with their money. They worked hard for what they had, and when each of them faced a job loss, they took it in stride and found something else to support our family. It’s what good parents do—they provide for their children. It’s what adults do. When one job doesn’t work out, we have to find another. So what’s the difference between a job and a career? I think it’s the love of a job that makes it a career.
I went through the typical childhood dreams of being unsure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Eventually, I settled on writing as an art form. It’s always the expression of myself from which I couldn’t stay away for too long. Sure, I took breaks over the years from the more creative aspects, but the writing was always there, waiting inside me out of loyalty, talent, and true passion for it.
Getting a real grown-up job was something I fell into while working on my master’s degree in college student personnel at Arkansas Tech University. While completing my bachelor’s in creative writing in early 2003, I learned of the new program starting its first cohort soon. Since I loved working as a senior fellow in the English department at ATU, I knew going to graduate college was the next step because I truly loved being in the college environment.
While working at J.C. Penney in Russellville, I completed my graduate college application. I drove to Fort Smith on my day off to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) because it wasn’t offered in Russellville in time for me to be admitted to the graduate program for the fall 2003 semester. I applied for student loans for the first time in my college career and for graduate assistantships at ATU, which were work-study programs that paid a small stipend and covered tuition.
A few weeks before the program began, I received a call from the College of Education to interview for a GA position. At that point, I was almost ready to accept student loans to pay for my education. The interview went well because the COE needed someone to do a lot of typing and editing for them. It wasn’t a “fun” position for most graduate students where they could handle student events or work with many people. But the position was perfect for me since I was a solitary writer. I was hired on the spot and immediately went to Financial Aid and turned down the student loans. The following week, I took a job in the stockroom at JCP to work 6 a.m.-Noon M-F, and then work 1-5 p.m. in the COE M-F. I would go to class three nights a week from 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
My work schedule was busy, but it worked for me. That next summer, I met Jonathan while working on my practicum (internship) experience. By August, I had applied for an administrative assistant position in what was then University Relations at ATU. It was a long shot, but I got the job! I gave notice at JCP and the COE, who were sad to see me go, but I had to move on. I was 23 years old, and for the first time, I had a job that I felt was the first step to a career at the university I loved. How optimistic and naïve I was at the time.
I had no idea that I would keep the aspects of that first real job for 16 years. I applied for promotions on many occasions at the university, but nothing ever worked out. I became frustrated as I was moved around and loaded with work that exceeded my salary on many occasions, but deep down, I still held on to that love I had for the university. I felt like I was making a difference for the students I encountered and behind the scenes for those I never met.
I was promoted in 2011 to handle the university’s first trademark licensing program after speaking to the president about my career. I told him then that no one would ever work as hard for that program’s standards as I would, and he agreed. I LOVED working in licensing and continuing my occasional editing and writing assignments. Of course, I still had to hold on to the admin assistant duties. For the next ten years, budgets and red tape prevented hiring an administrative assistant for the department, which changed leadership twice and became University and Marketing (MARCOMM) in the end.
By 2020, I had been named the Licensing, Brand, and Editorial Manager, and I still did all of the administrative work unpaid. It was then that we finally hired an administrative assistant during the COVID-19 pandemic. I trained the new hire and was thrilled to take a deep breath and settle into my role without having to worry about paying the department’s bills. While I handled everything as best as possible, that type of work didn’t energize me, and my talents were better served with writing, editing, and licensing. For a year, despite the pandemic, I felt such relief that I could love all of my work and be energized and excited for it daily. I felt so lucky. Damn, was I still naïve.
I knew the university was going through some financial issues. The new(er) president had promised in staff meetings that keeping the human core of ATU was among her priorities as we continued our mission of providing the best education and services for students. Having served as the inaugural staff senate president, I had heard many stories of disgruntled staff. Many were as overworked as I was, and many hadn’t been given raises in several years. Still, many of us were happy to have jobs as the pandemic loomed on.
In late March, the president announced that, unfortunately, there would have to be some layoffs and that employees would be notified before June 1. This news came the day after Jonathan and I had signed paperwork to purchase a newer car to replace my 2005 model that was having problems. I felt ill. I wanted people to be notified ASAP so they would know their options. Jonathan assured me that he and I would be fine, considering that we’d both been at the university for close to 17 years, but deep down, I still had a bad feeling about the whole situation.
I did a lot of praying during the weeks that followed, but mostly for others. I prayed for peace for those who would lose their jobs. On May 10, 2021, through a video call that only lasted a few minutes, I found out that my position would be eliminated after June 30. My first reaction was an internal “WTF?” and then my eyes began to water. The department director was still talking to me when I closed the laptop to end the call. I then called my husband and asked him to leave work early because of what I had just learned. I needed him to get our daughter and drive her to ballet because I was in no condition to operate a car. It was about one month before my 40th birthday. Happy birthday to me.
A little later that afternoon, I learned that I was being offered a “generous” transfer into another department for an administrative specialist job at less than half my current salary. I had less than 24 hours to accept the position, so I said I would take it because I was terrified of not having any money coming in and the prospect of searching for a job again after being employed at the same place for so long. I did a lot of crying that evening.
After learning of my job’s fate, I was sick from all the stress, so I took some time off work. I had too much going on to take time off, but I had to take care of myself. At that point, I stopped crying and got serious about looking for a new opportunity. I knew I couldn’t take the job in the other department. Quite frankly, the offer was insulting. I’m not saying the job was beneath me, but I was overqualified, considering my seniority and education. Plus, working so closely with my previous department would be the equivalent of being hired as a live-in housekeeper for an ex-boyfriend I still loved and his new wife. I just couldn’t do it and keep my mental and physical health in check. It was time for me to let go of the notion that I would someday retire from the university. It just wasn’t going to happen.
The next several weeks were full of turmoil for me. I tried my best to be professional about the whole situation. It was difficult because some people I thought cared about me had lied to me. I cut ties with those two people to preserve my health. Right before I was informed of my job’s elimination, another MARCOMM staff member resigned. This person had a salary that was roughly $10K more per year than my salary (and I’m not saying that salary was undeserved) so I don’t feel that the decision to eliminate my position was based on budgetary* considerations. It had always been that way in MARCOMM. Despite my seniority and skillset, my salary was always lower because apparently, my line of work wasn’t worth as much as the other specialized fields employed in the department. *Me feeling that I deserved more does not mean that I think others deserved less.
MARCOMM staff members were told that a proposal was made for the vacated position to be eliminated from our budget. Later, I was told that the proposal was denied due to the specialized field involved with that position. It didn’t matter that my position was specialized too. It didn’t matter that two other people in the department were also skilled in that profession and had offered to help in the interim. My job had already been on the chopping block long before the person resigned. None of the positions should have been there in the first place because we were all needed in the department.
I asked a lot of questions and even used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get a copy of the proposal, which had apparently never been sent to executive council. I don’t know where it went, but the proposal had been denied. The redacted document I received was basically showing how my job had already been divided. I’m not sure if I was supposed to see that part of the document. I think I was only supposed to see the statement that I had agreed to take over some of the scheduling to help with the vacated position. There wasn’t any mention of how the vacated position could be redistributed and supplemented with freelance workers and existing staff in the interim according to the plan mentioned by the department director.
So, anyway, that position was recently advertised to be rehired even though I lost my job. And then another MARCOMM member resigned, one who had barely been employed for an entire year. That position could also have been eliminated and redistributed after the resignation based on the duties and newness of the position. It would have been difficult to do without either vacated position, but we would have done our best to survive until the university could recover financially and those positions could be rehired. But that’s not what happened. My role was still gone. The university felt it was better to rehire the vacant positions than to save my position. I tried hard not to take it personally, but it felt personal, like I was fired deliberately. And I still don’t understand why. I always did my job and did it well. I went above and beyond. I volunteered for committees and was a staff loyalty fund ambassador. My husband and I proudly drove around with ATU license plates on our cars. I was a lifer who would have stayed loyal to the university.
I completed my last assignments as much as possible to avoid leaving other people in the department with a hole. Later, I gave my official notice that my last day would be in MARCOMM at the end of my contract on June 30 after being told I would have to move to the other department early on June 15. I was told rather rudely that I didn’t have a choice about the early move, but I did have a choice. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time getting training for a job I would not be taking. And I get that it was wrong of me to agree to accept the job initially, but I wasn’t in a good headspace when I had decided. Mistakes were made. So, of course, my decision not to take the job I was offered means that the university will probably deny me unemployment benefits, which I plan to fight. The job I was offered just wasn’t comparable to the job I lost—the career I loved.
Until that point, I had tried so hard to be part of the MARCOMM team even when I didn’t feel like I fit in. Everyone else was less reserved than I with their enthusiasm. Loud laughter often filled the hallways before the pandemic. It’s not that I never laughed, but I am just more reserved in my emotions. I have that type of personality. Though I can fake extroversion when the need arises, such as speaking in front of hundreds of people or leading a group, I am a true introvert and need alone time to function properly. Alone time is different from loneliness, and I’ve never felt lonelier than I did while telling the people I cared for about the pending loss of my job. So many people cared, but none could do anything to help the situation. Will I be missed? Will the department be worse off without me? I don’t know.
On June 30, I went to campus for my exit interview and handed over the ID card that I had proudly carried for almost 17 years. I looked at the photo of that 23-year-old and wished I could go back in time briefly to warn her, but I couldn’t. I told HR how unhappy I was about what had happened to me and refused to sign anything stating that I had resigned. I hadn’t quit; I’d simply worked until my contract expired, and then it wasn’t renewed. I had never officially signed anything stating that I would take the entry-level position in place of the position I had built over the years as my service to the university increased and changed. Everything I needed to learn about leadership, I had learned from how my situation was handled and how the situations of several others were handled. If I ever find myself in a leadership position, I will behave oppositely and do it with my ingrained integrity. There were so many things I had remained silent about that I laid out on the table. The HR director and her assistant sat with their mouths dropped open as I spoke. I’m proud of myself for not crying when I told them what I needed to say for myself and spoke up about others who were wronged.
July 1 came and went, and I still didn’t have a new job. Luckily, that changed soon enough. I’ll start August 2 with a new opportunity, and I get to work remotely except for occasional meetings in Fort Smith. It’s been hard, and I am a bit scared to start over. I know I’m qualified for the new senior copywriter position I accepted, but my heart took quite a beating in the last several weeks. My husband started looking for a new job immediately after we learned that mine was gone. His last day at ATU was Friday, and on Monday, July 26, he’ll be the new director of technology at a private school. It is a position he learned about while attending an ATU job fair with me to offer his moral support.
I hope that a year from now, both Jonathan and I will look at my unexpected unemployment as a blessing. I never thought I’d have a month-long vacation in July to spend with my kids, but I’ve tried really hard to spend quality time with them and reassure them that their dad and I had all the adult worries under control.
I hold no ill will toward the university as a whole because there are still some really great people working there, and I know there are some wonderful students there, but I no longer feel about it how I once did. I’m proud of the education I received at ATU. It’s hard to let go of a career I loved and people who were like family to me. My career path wasn’t perfect, but it was my journey, and my passion and genuine love for the university had kept me there. To be tossed aside so easily hurt, and most times, being hurt is worse than being angry. But I’ll be okay. And whatever is thrown at me in the future, I will handle it with class.
-Brandi Easterling Collins