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A newly minted Ph.D. credits her West Philly mother for her success

When Debonair Oates-Primus crossed a stage on Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s campus this month, earning her Ph.D. and delivering a graduation speech to thunderous applause, it felt wonderful. But the people who knew her best were not surprised.

Debonair Oates-Primus, a professor and scholar, recently earned her Ph.D. and was graduation speaker at IUP. Raised by a single mother in West Philadelphia, Oates-Primus is an assistant professor of English at CCP.
Debonair Oates-Primus, a professor and scholar, recently earned her Ph.D. and was graduation speaker at IUP. Raised by a single mother in West Philadelphia, Oates-Primus is an assistant professor of English at CCP.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Debonair Oates-Primus always knew she was expected to succeed.

She was born to a teenage single mother and grew up in a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood, but those things were motivators, not hindrances. Oates-Primus had a sharp mind and a willingness to work hard — and that single mother behind her, demanding A’s and providing the kind of support that made everything possible.

So when Oates-Primus crossed a stage at Indiana University of Pennsylvania this month, earning her doctorate in English literature and criticism and delivering a graduation speech to thunderous applause, it felt wonderful. But the people who knew her best were not surprised.

“It was the road and path my mother put me on,” said Oates-Primus, 36. “From the time that I can remember, college was the goal. It was always part of our lives.”

Maria Primus-Jones worked multiple jobs at a time to put her two daughters in private school and enrolled them in every activity she could find: tennis, cheerleading, track. And she was honest with them.

“I told them, ‘We’re in a community that makes life really hard for people, and the only way that you’re going to make it is to have an education,’” Primus-Jones said. “But I also needed them to always know where they came from, that a lot of children that looked like them didn’t have the same opportunities they did.”

From an early age, Oates-Primus shined as a student. She was a voracious reader and a strong writer, and when she got to the Philadelphia High School for Girls, she was inspired.

“I was around a bunch of powerful women — teachers who cared,” Oates-Primus said. “From the start, it was rigorous, and that really allowed me to ignite my academic competitiveness.”

After graduating from Girls’ High in 2001, Oates-Primus, a first-generation college student, attended West Chester University for an undergraduate degree in English literature and St. Joseph’s University for a master’s in English.

She entered college unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, but the answer soon became apparent. When a professor asked who had completed the assigned reading in one class, Oates-Primus’ hand shot up, the only one in the room.

Her professor then told her he wasn’t feeling well and instructed Oates-Primus, an English literature major who minored in African American literature, to lead the class that day.

Teaching was transformational. While she was earning her master’s degree, Oates-Primus worked as a substitute teacher in city high schools. It was illuminating but frustrating: She chafed at the lack of academic autonomy and believed that the system was not designed to prepare low-income students for college. But things clicked once she began teaching English at the college level.

And when Oates-Primus began teaching at Community College of Philadelphia in 2008, she knew she had found her place. CCP’s student body is predominantly African American and Oates-Primus thought she had a lot to offer to her students.

“We always talk about students of color being able to be in an environment where they see themselves represented,” she said. “When you’re in predominantly white spaces, you’re more careful, but I create this really safe space for my students. They feel safe bringing their authentic selves, their authentic perspectives.”

At CCP, she’s been busy in and out of the classroom, helping to launch a black studies major and a diversity certificate program, equipping college faculty and staff — many of whom are white people teaching students of color — with cultural competency lessons. Oates-Primus also led efforts to recruit a more diverse faculty at the college.

Those efforts weren’t always easy or initially well-received, but Oates-Primus said it’s been well worth the effort. So, too, has been the intense work of teaching, she said.

“The goal for my students isn’t just to get through my class, it’s to succeed in four-year institutions,” Oates-Primus said. “I tell them, ‘When you’re given easy work, that means people don’t believe in you. It means they don’t believe that you can.’ I tell them, ‘People who believe in you set high standards.’”

After securing her full-time position at CCP, Oates-Primus reached for her next goal. A doctorate wasn’t required, but securing the highest degree she possibly could seemed to be the right thing to do. She found a summers-only doctoral program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania that allowed her to keep her full-time job and dove in.

Oates-Primus loved the challenge, juggling coursework and then her dissertation with her life and work in Philadelphia. A breast cancer diagnosis came out of nowhere at age 30 and interrupted her pursuit of a degree. But once given a clean bill of health, Oates-Primus quickly got back on track to graduation.

After finishing and defending her dissertation examining the complexities of black women’s mental health in fiction, graduation loomed. Then she got the news that she had been chosen as graduation speaker.

Her speech was about bravery — not the absence of being afraid, but about doing difficult things even though they frighten you. Her inspiration was her mother, who “has grit coming out of her ears,” Oates-Primus said with a laugh.

Oates-Primus succeeded, she said, because of the expectations her mother set. Because her mother was such an involved parent that when Oates-Primus was on the cheerleading team, Primus-Jones had her own set of pom-poms.

“It was obvious from her actions that it was really important for me to have a different course and path than she had,” Oates-Primus said. “My mom worked so hard to bring me out of poverty.”

When her girls were small, Primus-Jones insisted on family dinners, on daily discussions about school and friends and life. She did the best she could, knowing she couldn’t control the way her daughters’ lives would end up. This month, she knew that it was all worthwhile.

“It was an out-of-body experience at graduation,” said Primus-Jones, who works as a climate specialist at a public school in West Philadelphia. “I said to myself, ‘This is really happening, my daughter has a Ph.D. I cried the whole time — I looked up on that stage and said, ‘I did it.’”