On December 14, Debonair Oates-Primus, of Philadelphia, will receive her doctoral degree in literature and criticism from IUP, and will celebrate her graduation as the student commencement speaker.
“A doctoral degree is part of a life-long dream,” Oates-Primus said. “I am a first generation, African-American student who grew up in a low-income community in Philadelphia. My mother was single, and from the time that I can remember, my mom and I were planning my academic career.
“My mom wanted my narrative to be different than hers and other kids’ in my neighborhood, so college for me was very important to her,” she said. “She worked multiple jobs to put me and my sister in private schools, and she was very involved with our guidance counselors when it came to college for us. She saw an opportunity for me to establish a life that she couldn’t have, a life that she really wanted for me.”
Oates-Primus said that books took her to a life that was “so much bigger” than the one she lived.
“Reading and writing have always been my love, and it was especially important for me, as a child who wasn’t really like most of the neighborhood kids. We had a very sheltered life, so books opened up all kinds of new worlds.”
She remembers a turning point in her life, due to one of her elementary school teachers who saw her potential. It involved an assignment to do a book report.
“All the rest of my classmates got these thin little books to read. When the teacher came to me, she gave me a copy of Little Women, twice or three times the size of the books that everyone else got. I wasn’t the kind of student that would ever complain to a teacher, but I went up to her after class, worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish this long of a book.
“The teacher assured me that I would love it, and that it would all be okay. She was right. I loved that book. She kept pushing me to do more, including writing, and because of her I submitted an essay for a school contest and won the contest.”
Now, it’s Oates-Primus’s turn to change the lives of her students.
Oates-Primus has been on the faculty of Philadelphia Community College for the last 11 years, teaching English as an adjunct faculty member for four years and full-time for the last seven years, currently serving as an assistant professor of English. She is also a published author, with short stories appearing in several magazines and journals.
IUP’s summers-only doctoral program has allowed her the flexibility to continue to work full-time while completing her doctoral studies.
“I wanted this doctoral degree from a career perspective, certainly, but I also believe it’s important, in an organization that serves a minority population, to set an example of achievement for my students of color, to teach people who look like me. I believe that these students need to see that people from their community can be successful even what they aren’t able to see it modeled around them.”
Oates-Primus feels a responsibility to be a role model, but she also recognizes how much her students inspire her.
“I hardly ever miss class, but I had to cancel two days of classes to defend my dissertation at IUP. I explained to my class why I would be away from the classroom and told them that I’d let them know the results of my defense at Monday’s class. One student couldn’t wait, she emailed me and asked, ‘are you a doctor or not?’ I told her that I did pass but asked her to keep it to herself. Well, the students couldn’t wait. I walked into the classroom and they were all yelling congratulations and running up to hug me.”
Oates-Primus completed her undergraduate studies at West Chester University, majoring in English and minoring in journalism and African-American literature, and completed a master’s degree in English at St. Joseph’s University. She is the daughter of Maria Primus-Jones and Frank Oates and is a 2001 graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
“As a child from a low-income community, you grow up struggling with choosing either a practical career or a brave career,” she said. “I was good at science, so in high school, that was my focus, with the idea that reading could be my hobby. But I didn’t want to pursue science as a career, so I compromised—my mom wanted me to go into journalism, thinking it would be good way to have a career and earn money quickly.”
As an undergraduate, she majored in journalism, hated it, but loved her English courses.
“So, I switched my major to English without telling her. She came around,” Oates-Primus said.
As she neared the end of her undergraduate studies, she decided to pursue a master’s degree—mostly because she wasn’t sure of her next steps.
Her faculty mentor’s sudden illness during a class and Oates-Primus’s own responsibility toward her studies set the stage for her current path.
“This professor was my mentor, and the only African-American faculty member in the program. She and I talked about me going on to law school, but I just wasn’t sure.
“One day, she became ill in class, and asked the class who had completed the reading assignment for that day. I was the only one that raised my hand, and she told me that I would be leading the class that day for her. I really didn’t want to do it, but I did it, because she asked me to. It turned out that I loved it.”
Her mentor encouraged Oates-Primus to continue her studies in English, and to reach for the PhD—not just because of her potential and her love of English and teaching, but for the impact it could make on other talented women and men of color who lacked role models.
“The more time I spent in education, the more I warmed up to the idea of pursuing a PhD, especially when I found IUP’s program and realized I could take advantage of the summers-only option, because I could work full-time while completing my studies,” she said.
In addition to her teaching responsibilities at Community College of Philadelphia, Oates-Primus has been focused a great deal of her career on the development and incorporation of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“I pushed for the first black studies degree at CCP and spearheaded the first robust diverse faculty recruitment initiative, focusing on hiring and retaining more diverse faculty,” she said. “Once the importance of diversity was understood, the administration has been completely on board and has embraced and supported this work.”
Oates-Primus started CCP’s first Diversity Certificate Program, designed to increase faculty diversity competencies. It is unique because it is entirely faculty-, staff-, and administration-driven, and reflects the topics that employees want to learn.
“I have worked hard to push the college’s vision and goals beyond the superficial equity and diversity programs that just check the boxes to ones that have some teeth, measurable results, and truly impact the lives of our students,” she said.
Her dissertation, “Racialized and Gendered Madness: Decolonizing Psycho-Social Hysteria in African American and Postcolonial African Black Women’s Fiction,” focuses on three contemporary texts written by black women authors.
“I examine the necessary narrative strategies that contemporary, black women writers have deployed to reconstruct, re-conceptualize, and relocate madness as a production of psycho-social distress caused by the intersectional collusion of oppressive, institutional power structures,” Oates-Primus said. “Additionally, I closely analyze the relationship between the cultural and socioeconomic conditions of the texts’ protagonists and the degree to which those forces trigger their psychotic breakdowns.
“The goal of this dissertation is simple: to centralize black women’s mental health and to accurately identify the institutional sources of their mental distress.”