Dr. Sandra C. Affare’s eyes welled up as she recalled her first day as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga adjunct faculty member.
Affare, a member of the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Engineering Management and Technology Department, had returned to UTC in 2018—from where she had received a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1998 and a master’s in business administration in 2001.
She had 21 years of corporate experience on her resume, mostly with TVA, and earned a Ph.D. in engineering/industrial management from UT Knoxville in 2016. Her project management expertise has brought her back to UTC.
“My first semester was surreal,” she recalled. “To teach in the same college where you got your initial degree, I fought back tears—which is literally what I am doing right now.
“I fought back tears the first day I stood at the podium, looking at the students and remembering being one of them on this campus. And I fought back tears remembering being told I would never make it as an engineer.”
Words matter, she said, and she didn’t take that negative view lightly. Although she opted not to reveal the name of the individual who told her she wouldn’t succeed in the field, she has used it ever since as inspiration.
“I do not know why he said it. He challenged me, and I told him I would get my Ph.D. in engineering,” Affare said. “From that point forward, I decided that no one can tell me what I can’t do.”
Affare arrived at UTC in 1992 as a first-generation college student from Memphis and began working at TVA as a student employee as a sophomore. Her first project involved the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant located near Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee.
“I had to look at the electrical schematic for Sequoyah and figure out if breaker A was affected, what superseding breakers would be affected,” she recalled. “That was my first engineering project and I felt empowered.”
As she matriculated through the engineering program, Affare took on increasing responsibilities at TVA, rising from engineering intern to graduate intern to contractor to full-time employee—much of it in research.
She even had a stint with the U.S. Army as a TVA asset on loan to the Department of the Army through a military interdepartmental purchase request.
“It was supposed to have been a two-and-a-half month assignment,” she said with a laugh, “and it ended up being a two-and-a-half year assignment.”
The chip of being told she wouldn’t make it as an engineer never left her shoulder, and completing her Ph.D. was always in the back of her mind.
After retiring from TVA in 2014, she took the final steps toward obtaining a doctoral degree, becoming a graduate research assistant at the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
She said being a graduate research assistant opened her eyes to researching differently.
“At TVA, I was looking for new technology to improve power: Power delivered, power transmitted, power dips, making sure power quality was ensured. When you get to the Ph.D. program, it’s no longer researching for the customer or meeting the customer’s goals; it’s now developing your research question and looking at hypotheses—and it may or may not work,” she said.
While switching from corporate research to academic research, two UT Space Institute faculty members—Dr. James Simonton and Dr. Janice Tolk—put the thought into Affare’s head that she should be in front of the classroom teaching and mentoring others.
“They saw in me what I didn’t see in me,” Affare said. “Back then, I didn’t believe I could be a professor, but they thought I could. Dr. Tolk witnessed me doing research for her and presenting and writing papers. Dr. Simonton hired me as an adjunct at Tullahoma and witnessed me teaching. I took what they said I could do and I tried it.”
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For the majority of non-tenure-track faculty, the emphasis is on teaching and service.
In year five of her teaching career, Affare wants to move up from an adjunct role.
“When I started teaching, I was scared; I didn’t have a lot of teaching experience,” she said. “I had a lot of research experience and I was comfortable with the material, but I didn’t understand delivery. I didn’t understand pedagogical goals and I didn’t have formal training; most adjuncts don’t.
“I don’t think my first year looks anything like my fifth year, but I do see that this is where I want to be in terms of teaching.”
Why does she want to be considered for the tenure track?
“I don’t get to do research as an adjunct,” she said. “I was a researcher in corporate America before moving into academia, and when you go through that Ph.D. program, you become an expert in research. Am I an expert in statistical measures? No, but do I know how to form the research questions, ask the hypotheses questions and test my methods? Absolutely. Develop methods and then test them. Absolutely. So why stop at just teaching when you can do more?”
A big fan of Affare’s is Dr. Stephanie Philipp, an assistant professor of education and the interim director of the UTC STEM Education program.
They were introduced by Dr. Jennifer Ellis, who is now on leave with the National Science Foundation. Ellis wanted Philipp to help Affare on a grant being sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on agricultural job possibilities for women.
Philipp soon learned that Affare was adjunct faculty, “and I’m like, ‘You’re going after funding? This is awesome.’”
Philipp said that Affare recently asked her to collaborate on a research idea.
“She said, ‘I think you might be the perfect person to pair with. I have to have a tenure track person to be the (Principal Investigator),’” Philipp said. “It’s a program called Advance, and it’s examining inequity in the STEM world: STEM faculty, STEM students, STEM workforce, the inequities. In particular, she has this idea of studying the intersectionality of gender, race, culture, maybe first-generation or socioeconomic, and how all that plays into it.”
Philipp lauded Affare’s collegial partnerships and her ability to seek external grant funding for her research ideas.
“I feel like I’m a little bit of a mentor among her many mentors,” Philipp said, “but she takes those mentors very seriously. She’s establishing what I would call a kitchen cabinet of people to refer to. I just have never seen an adjunct reach out to do stuff like that before.
“As an assistant professor, I’m always up for professional development, grant writing, mentoring and putting together a good dossier. She’s always there in all these sessions trying to be the best she can be.”
While Affare won’t forget the negative view she once heard, she also doesn’t forget the positive views expressed by Tolk and Simonton and Dr. Nesli Alp—the former engineering management and technology department head who brought Affare to UTC.
Positive words make a difference, too.
“It took a while for me to believe them, but I know I can do this and I like this,” she said. “That is why I pour everything I have into these students and let them know they can make it.”