Dr. Colleen Mestayer, a communication professor at Tennessee Tech, is passionate about teaching and she has a positive outlook on life.
What’s your education background?
“I got a bachelor’s in advertising at LSU, and then went straight into a master’s program in communication studies right after that and ended up getting a master’s with a focus on interpersonal communications. But I also did, I’m so diversified, I also had an outside minor in vocational rehabilitation. I guess, you know, helping people that’s my thing, right? So, then after I got my master’s, funny, I went to work in advertising. So, for about 12 years I did advertising, marketing, PR, you know I was a PR director for the Catholic diocese. I worked for a psychologist, I worked for a university, and then of course in the meantime I had been married, had three kids, and gotten divorced. So, I guess when I was like 39, so my kids were like I guess 10, 8 and 5, I quit my job doing PR. It was just too crazy. I was working, I was at the TV station three mornings a week at 4 o’clock. Well, who can come and babysit at 4 a.m., right? So, I quit and went back to school and got a master’s in education and during that time -it just took me a year- I got certified to teach English. So, then I went and taught English at a high school and then eventually a middle school. And then when I was 50, by this time, my son was graduating from high school. So, I started when he was in kindergarten in education. Then, when he was graduating from high school, I got my doctorate in education. So, sort of a diversified background.”
What was the biggest challenge of being a single mother?
“Money, money, flat out money. I mean when I worked in PR, even though I had a master’s, I was making at the poverty level. That was tough. And then when I gave it up for the year to go back to school, even though it was so little, oh my God. I swear we ate Vienna sausages and hamburger/cheeseburger macaroni every night. Every night. So, I would have to say, probably, money would be 100 percent the hardest thing.
What were the challenges of being a professional woman?
“The biggest challenge was the inequity in pay, OK? And the second biggest challenge was that I didn’t have power. I mean, so, even though I was the communication director, I couldn’t make any decisions. I had to go to my director, who was a man, and he would go, ‘Well, I think we ought to do it this way.’ And you know I’m like, ‘No, I have the degree, I know what I’m doing.’ So, I think it was that -which, which made me feel not respected in the field. You know, it’s like wait a second. Which is why I went to get my doctorate because I realized that, through all that – I mean when I got my education stuff I didn’t feel any of that. I didn’t feel any inequities in there; I mean I had great male friends and female friends, male bosses, female bosses, and I was a valued member of the educational system. You know, I won many awards, I was on all kinds of things, so I felt very equal. But I think I went and got my doctorate because for years I just had not felt that I was smart enough. You know why didn’t they listen to me? Maybe I’m not smart enough. So, I think when I got my doctorate, because I’m making much less money now than I would be if I were teaching middle school or high school, which is funny, but I needed it for my ego just so you know, ‘You are smart, you know what you’re doing.’”
Do you think if you had been respected more you wouldn’t have gotten your doctorate?
“Probably yes. So, I’m the baby of seven as you know. So, my oldest brother, he’s 15 years older than me. So, when I was about 5 -he’s extremely intelligent, so he was very accelerated – so he went to Stanford to get his doctorate in nuclear physics. So, when he got his doctorate, or maybe when he started the doctoral program, I was about 5 and I had always said, ‘I am going to get a doctorate like Mack.’ Because nobody in between does. They all have advanced degrees; everyone has a master’s or a law degree or whatever, but nobody had a doctorate. So now it’s sort of funny ‘cause we’ve bookended everyone. So, Mack will text me and say, ‘Doctor, doctor.’ I mean, which is great. So, I probably still would have but it just sort of pushed me to say, ‘Hey, the time is right, do it.’”
How did you end up at Tennessee Tech?
“Funny, funny story. So, I was on the market, had lots of interviews. But I don’t have any publications. And most of the schools that I was applying to were research schools and in order to be hired you have to have publications. And, anyways, so I had decided OK well maybe higher-ed was not where I need to be, because, although I love research and am fascinated by it, my heart and soul was about teaching. So, I had accepted a middle school teaching job back in Louisiana. I was just going to get back into my retirement fund, and I mean financially it was a very smart move. So, it was about a month before school started and I had continued to send out some resumes and apply for jobs, and Scott Christen, from here, called me and said, ‘Hey, I know it’s way late, but we’ve just gotten approval and we’re wondering if you might still be interested.’ And I said, ‘Can I call you back?’ And my daughter was with me and I said, ‘Allison.’ And she said, ‘Mom, it’s your heart.’ And I called him back and said yes. I went to the middle school and I said, ‘I hate to do this.’ And the woman looked at me and said -this is how I knew it was meant to be. She looked at me and she said, ‘Do you know who just left my office? A woman who desperately needs your position at this school.’ And I said, ‘It’s hers.’ But I didn’t know that I had the job here. And then my daughter was like, ‘But mom, what if it doesn’t go through?’ And I said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK. I mean, it’s going to work.’ And low and behold, I had our interview and they offered it to me. This is another one of my 5-year-old dreams was to live in a place that had four seasons. I had a little storybook that showed all the four seasons. So, along with being a doctor, I wanted to live somewhere where there would be some hills, and a little snow, and we would see the leaves turn orange -orange is my favorite color. So, it just was like, within 30 minutes of me, I can go hike anywhere. Hiking is one of my favorite activities. So, it’s like, I don’t know, it just worked for me. And I can either call it coincidence or I can call it God, and I’m going to call it God. Just ‘cause it feels so right. So, that’s how I ended up here.”
How long have you been at Tech?
“This is my sixth semester. So, three years. I started August of ’16.”
What would you say your greatest accomplishment is?
“Probably my children. I would say, um, I mean if I had to rank things, because my kids are, they still have great relationship with their dad, which I think is wonderful. They’re all independent, strong, go-getters. Every one of them are just like, ‘Hey, here’s life, we are going for it.’ You know they don’t mind taking chances, and they’re all extremely intelligent and use critical thinking. And I have a good relationship with them. So that, to me, ‘cause we were able to go through some –‘cause we had some horrible teenage years – and to know that truly, they’re my closest friends. So that’s probably my greatest accomplishment, would be, just flat out succeeded at motherhood.”
What’s your favorite aspect about Tech?
“I love Tech. So, besides it being in a great town, and I think Cookeville is great, I think it has got enough of the nice things, the Publix, the Aldi, you know. I love the hometown feel of downtown. So, Cookeville is great. Tech is absolutely the right size. Like, I walk across campus, I always see somebody I’ve taught, so I feel welcomed, I feel important here, I have a lot of students come to me whether it’s personal or other classes or whatever. It’s like they trust me. I feel, I don’t know, I just feel valued. And it’s a really nice feeling. And a little side note; so, I went to LSU, purple and gold. I went to USM, they are the golden eagles. Here I am, purple, gold, golden eagles. What? It is just, everything came together. And it just feels right. I mean when I drive on campus, you know, I park, I get out and I’m like, ‘Mmm, I’m home.’ I like the size of it, I like the students, they’re so respectful but they’re fun, they’ll pick back at me, but there’s a lot of learning going on. I don’t know, it just has all the right ingredients for me.”
What’s an average day like for you?
“I mean, I’m early to bed, early to rise. So, and my two favorite things -this sort of crazy – but I love to watch “The Today Show” and I like to watch Lester’s 5:30, NBC Evening News. Don’t ask me why. So that’s my sort of two bookends. I’m always checking my emails, responding to students, responding to other faculty members, thinking of new activities, working on, you know, I just do a lot of school stuff. But I make sure that I get in some exercise. I do a lot of walking, you know I love to cook so I do some of that. I mean I have a few TV shows I watch, only on Tuesday nights, “This Is Us.” But mainly I’m just focused on, I don’t know, what I’m doing in school. And I talk to my kids often, like, you know probably once a week. I’ve got one in New York City, one in Delaware and one back in Louisiana. So, you know either a little texting or my son will send me some stupid Snapchat or, and my oldest calls which is nice. So, you know my days aren’t super exciting, I try to get my 8,000 steps in and I’ve got my Fitbit; my favorite thing to do is make sure I got my steps. I have a lot of favorites, can you tell? But life is good Sam, life is just good.
Do you have any funny teaching stories?
“Well, God I have so many, I do. They all revolve around me being super goofy. You know I probably taught class 15-20 times with my pants unzipped and did not know and none of the students would tell me, and I’d go to the bathroom and go, ‘Oh my God.’ But probably the two worst things that ever happened, was my first year teaching, God, teaching is hard. Oh my God, my first year of teaching was like working three years in the outside world. So hard. You are always on. So, I was sitting in class and I was on a stool, and you know I’m so short that my feet never touch anything. So, I pulled my legs up and I did the Indian kind of thing and I always taught English, right? So, I was maybe reading an excerpt from “Lesson Before Dying” or something that’s pretty serious, seems like. I sort of jerked in the middle of it, couldn’t get my legs undone, and fell off the stool; it was horrible, oh my God. But my students were so worried about me, you know? But all I could do was laugh. And another time I did the exact same thing, when I was teaching college and I was on top of a desk, sitting, and I had my legs up and I went to get off the desk and I was thinking that the floor was closer than it was. Anyway, my feet sort of went back and I flew, oh my God, and hit my chin on the ground, oh those poor students, they were terrified, they were just running, you know? And I’m like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ but I’m laughing so hard cause I realize how goofy I am. So, it’s just me falling, whatever, teaching with my pants unzipped. And I think that’s why I make fun of myself so much, because, shoot, I’m just goofy, so why not? Plus, it allows the students to, maybe be a little less hesitant to be goofy, to have fun.”
Do you have any general advice for those who are reading this?
“Yeah, two things: one, we get one chance. Make the most of it. And two, you’ve just got to fake it ‘til you make it. I’m not in a great mood every day, but I don’t want my students to know that because it’s not their fault. So, I put on that happy face, and in a minute or two I am feeling happy. So literally, live each day and fake it ‘til you make it, and soon it becomes you. I really, I don’t know, I just think we are so blessed to be here and instead of focusing on negatives let’s focus on some positives. So that would be my ultimate advice would be to enjoy life, enjoy life. It’s too short, and I don’t want to leave any time soon.”