Columbia English Professor, Inspired by Child with Down Syndrome, Pursues Science Degree at GS
GS boasts a diverse and well-rounded student body, some of whom enroll after achieving great success in their respective careers and lives. Having taught many of them as an English professor, Adams can personally attest to the academic excellence of GS students. This spring, after discovering new ambitions in STEM, she too returned to the classroom to become a student once again, this time at the School of General Studies.
When Adams first enrolled in college, she was convinced that science and math were not for her. Instead, she focused her studies in English, excelling in her courses and going on to earn her master's and doctoral degrees. Over the course of her education, totaling more than a decade, she specialized in American literature, with an interest in topics such as gender, sexuality, popular culture, and media.
With a desire to teach, Adams was ecstatic to be offered a position at Columbia University, and even more so when she was awarded tenure seven years later. In that time, her academic career accelerated—she fulfilled a long-held dream by publishing two books on American literary and cultural studies with The University of Chicago Press, and she continued to write and teach while becoming more invested in the Columbia community and settling down with a family.
I already have a career I love, but I plan to use my studies to become a better teacher, writer, and advocate for my son and other people with genetic disabilities.
Soon after the birth of her second son, doctors told her and her husband that he had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. The news had a seismic effect on Adams’s perception of her family’s future and her personal outlook on life. She admits to having previously measured the quality of life based on intellectual capability—her whole life had been dedicated to academia—and her youngest son would challenge that.
"As someone devoted to intellectual life, I wondered how I would love a child who might be slower to learn, and might not reach the intellectual milestones that had made my life meaningful," Adams reflected. "My son has taught me to reevaluate what it means to live a meaningful life and our standards for measuring human value, even as he continually exceeds my expectations."
Raising a son with Down syndrome also inspired Adams to pursue new academic interests in disability, education, and family. Her next project—a memoir detailing the first three years of her son’s life—was framed through a discussion of the history of medical care, education, and institutionalization of people with disabilities, and current debates over parenting, genetic testing, inclusive learning, and universal design. Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery received the 2012 Delta Kappa Gamma Educators’ Award and gave Adams a platform for her advocacy on the subject. She began to write for the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, Salon, Huffington Post, and more.
Adams's advocacy work expanded into her position as a faculty member, and she began to teach and serve on projects related to disability studies and genetics counseling. Becoming so closely tied with these subjects convinced Adams to pursue science-focused studies herself.
"It crystallized as I was invited to develop curriculum for Columbia’s new Genetic Counseling Graduate Program," recalled Adams. "As I imagined the kinds of courses I could teach on ethics, history, and culture, I increasingly wished I knew more about the science of genetics. The best way to contribute, as well as to enrich my work as a teacher, writer, and advocate, would be to enroll in the Program myself."
In order to prepare for her studies, Adams applied to—and eventually enrolled at—GS to pursue a second bachelor's degree in biology.
In keeping with the spirit of GS, I think classes are enriched when I enroll in them as a student; in turn, what I learn gives me new materials, methods, and energy to bring to my own teaching.
"I do not see myself becoming a genetic counselor, as I already have a career I love, but I plan to use my studies to become a better teacher, writer, and advocate for my son and other people with genetic disabilities," said Adams.
Even with her longstanding career in academics, the prospect of returning as a student is as intimidating for Adams as it is for other nontraditional students. At 51 years old with a career and a family, she recognizes that academic success will be challenging, but embraces her unique perspective as a nontraditional student and the value it brings.
"What I contribute now is a wealth of life experience, three decades of studying humanities, and a strong sense of purpose. In keeping with the spirit of GS, I think classes are enriched when I enroll in them as a student; in turn, what I learn gives me new materials, methods, and energy to bring to my own teaching," Adams said.