Professors at Chicago State University walked off the job for two weeks last month to fight for fair salaries and workloads. Faculty at the majority-Black public university are some of the lowest-paid in the state, according to the National Education Association.

Many students at the South Side campus supported faculty members, whom they see not just as teachers — but as mentors and counselors, too. Senior Mya Nash, who walked the picket lines with her professors, even considers them the aunties and uncles she never had.

“These people have high expectations for you, and they know you can do it,” said Nash, a 25-year-old who grew up on the South Side.

Nash first discovered that four years ago when she wore the wrong shoes to class.

“I had on my non-slip shoes, but they always had soup or something on them,” said Nash, who worked at Panera Bread at the time. “So I was like, ‘Okay, let me go just get my Crocs.’”

Nash had just come off a shift and walked into the first session of her chemistry lab course. Her professor, Valerie Goss, pulled her aside and told her she couldn’t wear Crocs in the laboratory, for safety reasons.

Nash said she told Goss, “I’m so sorry, I was just coming from my full-time job. I love chemistry, I’m here to learn. I won’t do it again.”

She and Goss, the president of Chicago State’s faculty union, are both Black women – a minority in higher education, especially in the sciences. A large body of research shows Black students are more likely than their white peers to attend underfunded schools and less likely to attain a college degree. But at Chicago State, seven out of 10 students are Black, according to federal data, as are four out of 10 professors. Chicago State has suffered a steep drop in state funding in recent years, along with a major drop in enrollment.

After apologizing, Nash asked Goss, “‘How do I get engaged? What does that look like for me?’ She’s like, ‘Well, I have a lab. Would you like to see it? Are you interested?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

That invitation turned into years of research opportunities. Nash was able to quit her job at Panera and focus on school. She learned how to use the atomic force microscope in Goss’s lab. She calls it her “precious baby” and uses it to follow her endless scientific curiosity.

“I can take a surface and look at it and be like, ‘What will happen If I put this compound on it? Will it react negatively? Would it react positively?’” Nash said. “I have a curious mind. I just let it go in chemistry, and I love that.”

After she graduates this month, Nash will head to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in chemistry.

“I would never have imagined myself in this position now, because of my past, my upbringing,” she said. “The things that I went through were very, very traumatic.”

Nash spent time in the foster care system before being adopted. She said she bounced from home to home. Her learning was delayed.

“But I did it. I came out,” she said. “I wasn’t always the top of my class, especially in high school, that’s when I slacked off a bit. In community college I kind of slacked off a little bit, too. But then I got here, and I was like, ‘Shoot to the moon.’”

Nash appreciated the small class sizes at Chicago State, and, most importantly, the faculty. They helped her during her darkest hour, when her father died the night before finals week her sophomore year.

“They don’t sign up to be that, but these people were my counselors, my backbone, my advisors, my mentors,” she said. “They got me through it.”

That’s what made the strike last month so hard for Nash. It wasn’t just that her classes were disrupted.

Nash uses the atomic force microscope, which she calls her ‘precious baby,’ to analyze the surface height of a tiny piece of DNA. Lisa Philip / WBEZ

“I had these conversations with my professors: They want to be in the classroom. They want to teach me. But unfortunately they can’t, because they’re not getting paid enough to do so,” she said. “Just knowing that this is something they rightfully deserve was painful for me.”

Nash said she and other students of color deserve to have professors who are paid just as much, if not more, than professors at predominantly-white institutions.

“If I didn’t see Dr. Goss … in my classes, I would not have the hope that I have today. You would not see me getting a PhD in chemistry,” she said. “I would have cut it off at a bachelor’s. I probably would’ve even cut it off at sophomore year.”

Chicago State faculty have not yet released the details of their new contract. Nash hopes her professors got what they need and deserve. She credits them with where she is today.

“They were like, ‘You can do it,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, you see something that I didn’t see at the time. But I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.’ And I have.”

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip and @WBEZeducation.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.