By Nate Mundt:
Students struggle more than ever to pay for college. The cost of college doubled between 1989 and 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics shows. Bek Orr, the College at Brockport’s newest women and gender studies professor, knows how it feels.
“I don’t even want to say working class,” Orr said about growing up. “We were just poor.”
Orr was raised by a single mother. Orr’s mother spent much of her time working as a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Too little money was coming into the household to support Orr and her three older sisters. Despite her financial woes, Orr worked multiple jobs to support herself through her undergraduate studies as a sociology student at Brockport.
Orr grew up in an extremely religious household. Despite this, Orr didn’t let it affect her views on gender and oppression as a child.
“Looking back, I was always a little feminist,” Orr said. “Like most folks socialized as a girl, I grew up with a pretty personal understanding of gendered oppression, and I never accepted that this is just the way things are.”
Orr originally came to Brockport to study social work. She even received a scholarship from her high school to study social work and specifically chose Brockport for its social work program. Orr changed her mind when she took an introduction to sociology class her first semester.
“I just totally fell in love with it [sociology],” Orr said. “I fell in love with the professor and I fell in love with the content.”
Social work and sociology are both about human interaction and social behavior, but there is a difference between the two fields. Social workers are more hands-on and help people deal with social problems. Sociologists conduct detailed research and are more theoretical compared to social workers.
Orr switched her major to sociology, and took a gender, race and class course her sophomore year.
“When I got to college and took a women and gender studies class for the first time, I learned the language to describe the things I had experienced, and this was exciting and empowering,” Orr said. “From there on out, it became a big part of my identity.”
Women and gender studies is about the connections between sex, gender, race and how these categories help form social identities. Additionally, the topic highlights the diverse perspectives of women and how they have contributed to society.
Orr graduated from Brockport with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2008, before earning masters and PhD degrees in sociology from Syracuse University. Orr soon found out she loved teaching after teaching a few online and introductory classes at Brockport during her graduate studies at SU. Orr now knew she wanted to teach full time but needed a PhD to do so.
“It became here’s the end goal: I love to teach and that’s what I want to do,” Orr said. “I want to make enough money to live my life doing it, so what I need is a PhD.”
After completing her PhD, Orr taught at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., in the sociology department for four years. Despite having a stable job in Virginia doing what she loved, Orr was far from her family in Rochester. After learning that her undergraduate alma mater was hiring in the Women and Gender Studies department, Orr jumped on the chance to teach at Brockport.
“I live for teaching and working with Brockport students,” Orr said. “…A lot of them come from working-class backgrounds and are working their asses off while they’re getting their degrees, which is what I had to do.”
Orr has taught at Brockport for two semesters. She is the second full-time professor in Brockport’s women and gender studies program and teaches a variety of classes dealing with feminist theory and research methods. Orr teaches students broad concepts but love when they understand the meanings behind the concepts.
“The moments that make me love teaching the most are those ‘aha’ moments that you can see students experience in a class,” Orr said. “It sounds cliche, but sometimes you can actually see things click into place for students in a class, where, all of a sudden, they understand a concept in a way that they didn’t previously understand it. That’s incredibly rewarding as a teacher.”
With her hiring as the newest women and gender studies professor at Brockport, Orr has seen Brockport’s women and gender studies program grow. Orr hopes this trend continues as more and more students choose to study the discipline. Orr is excited to help grow the department at Brockport that gave her the foundation to pursue what she was passionate about.
Orr couldn’t be any happier teaching at her alma mater something she’s passionate in. Teaching the next generation of women and gendered scholars is a mission Orr is committed to. Her childhood experiences about gendered oppression have shaped and led Orr to where she is today. Many obstacles, such as financial difficulties, couldn’t stop Orr from studying something she loves. She persevered and hasn’t looked back since.