Monday, May 4, 2015

Thirty-year Fraud

When I retire after the 2015-2016 academic year, I will have completed over thirty years of teaching Spanish and other subjects at the university level. Twenty-eight of those years were full time, with four years as an adjunct.

I never prepared to be a teacher. I majored in Spanish because by testing out of numerous levels of the subject, it was the fastest way to complete a BA that I could find. I got my degree in three-and-a-half years. In fact, I have more hours in both music and communications than I have in Spanish.

While taking the requisite courses in Bible and Anabaptist thought at Goshen College, I became interested in pursuing a seminary degree. After graduating from Goshen, I enrolled part time at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. I loved my studies there more than my courses in Spanish, but after only one year, Hesston College, knowing my abilities in Spanish, called me to teach Spanish. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I accepted and began teaching Spanish. I only had a BA and no courses or experience in education.

As part of my employment agreement, I had to pursue a Master’s degree in Spanish, which I did. I enjoyed these studies greatly and did well enough to be nominated by the Spanish Department at Wichita State University for a Danforth scholarship to pursue my PhD in Spanish. They were stunned when I didn’t get the scholarship. I pretty sure I know why I was turned down. I had too many interests and was too honest. I said I wanted to be a missionary or a teacher. They were looking for a focused scholar/teacher.

I was invited to teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite College after a successful 7-year stint at Hesston College with the promise that I would pursue my PhD. After teaching for two years, a budgetary crisis hit the college and there was a change in some of the promises I had been given to lure me to EMC. This was a disquieting time for me, and some of my earlier interests started to surface. I turned down an exciting opportunity to work in the travel industry and decided do a stint with Mennonite Central Committee. We went to Mexico for three years. That postponed my interest in pursuing a PhD.

Once again Hesston College called. Could I return to teach Spanish and German after the three-year term with MCC? Having a young family with no way to look for other opportunities while abroad, I readily accepted. I lasted for five years before the restlessness of wanting to pursue interests once again surfaced. Those of you who have studied the Enneagram will not find it surprising that I am probably a seven. We tend to be “gluttons” for new experiences. So off I went to work as the director of communications for Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions for seven years. During this time I taught as an adjunct at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

You guessed it. Another attractive position for director of cross-cultural programs opened up at EMU with a half-time teaching load. I have been there ever since, returning to full-time teaching discovering after five years that academic administration wasn’t for me.
Throughout my years of teaching at the university level, I have felt like a fraud for two reasons. First, I had never had any training in education and although I was considered a good teacher, my mind was always fanaticizing about other more interesting pursuits. Secondly, I never attained that PhD.

I have been reminded on many occasions and in many ways of my lack of a PhD, each time enhancing my sense of being a fraud. Many times I have been introduced as “Dr. Clymer” with the assumption that by working at a university, I had attained this level of education. Over the years I have received lots of correspondence addressed to “Dr. Clymer.” I was grandfathered in as “Assistant Professor;” under current policies, I could not have this title, cannot be tenured nor apply for a sabbatical. I have been denied the teaching of certain classes because of my lack of a PhD.

Instead of pursuing a PhD, I returned to studies in seminary and graduated with a second master’s degree in 2008. My concentration was in spiritual formation and I found tremendous catharsis in examining the intersection between spirituality and cross-cultural experiences; especially my own. Perhaps to vindicate my sense of fraud, I poured myself into writing and have been published widely with dozens of articles in church periodicals and several books. But within some academic circles, these writings have been dissed for not being academic. Feelings of fraud reared its ugly head again.

In spite of these feelings of being a fraud over the years, I have come to realize that I have made significant contributions to the lives of hundreds of students and others. I have hundreds of notes from them to back this up. I continue to mentor students who have entered my life, and none of them have asked me why I don’t have a PhD. In spite of how difficult it is at times, I also have come to realize that I am not defined by my educational level.

Groveling in the dirt with a student during a service project
 in rural Guatemala.
Tomorrow for the last time, I will be leading a group of 24 students on a cross-cultural adventure to Mexico, some for three weeks and the rest for six weeks. I am confident that for many of them this will be a life-changing experience, and I thank God for the privilege I have of having a hand in this. It is my relationships with these and many other students that I choose to remember as I ride off into the sunset.


  1. You are the genuine article, Don, and not a fraud.

    Many of us have fallen victim to imposter syndrome from time to time. The greater the gap between our starting and ending points in our careers, the greater our vulnerability to this feeling.

    The good news? Careers and vocations are not the same things! That which was truly your response to the calling to serve and teach will continue on.

    The Encore Vocation can be the best years of our lives. May your last year be your best as you finish your university teaching career. I know you will find ways to continue your calling afterward.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Shirley. I particularly like your comments on the difference between careers and vocations. I've had several diametrically opposed careers, but one vocation--which I will continue after I retire.

      I used fraud somewhat with my tongue in cheek, but it is indeed a catchier headline than "imposter syndrome." :)

  2. Ahh, perhaps I am also a 7 on the Enneagram, but I will tell you that the rich experiences of your life seem to me to be much more fulfilling than a piece of paper stating your length of time as a student. I, for one, benefited greatly from your inherent love of the cultures represented by the language you taught. I am jealous of your international experiences. Though I will never have those international experiences OR the PhD, I would eagerly choose the international experiences over the piece of paper and time in classrooms. Your knowledge and excellence as a teacher were enriched by those experiences in ways a PhD would never be able to duplicate. Thank you for your influence on my life, "Dr. Clymer". -Diane Yoder

    1. Thank you, Diane! I will never forget your eagerness to learn about others and your insatiable curiosity. Even if you grew up on a Kansas farm! :)