Trust and respect bring graduating senior and professor together for life

Kristine Munoz and Angela Cohen
Kristine Muñoz (left) and Angela Cohen

How does trust develop? For one student-faculty pair on campus, it started with respect. And that respect happened to start with what looked from the outside like confrontation.

It was the summer of 2012, shortly after Angela Cohen, who will graduate from the UI this week, had first arrived at the University of Iowa for the Summer Research Opportunities Program, where Communication Studies Professor Kristine Muñoz was a faculty mentor. Although they weren’t paired together—Cohen was studying in a different department at the time—they met at a program event where Muñoz presented her research to the group. During the Q&A, Muñoz began discussing dialect, including African-American Vernacular English.

“I said something that Angela took great exception to, and she said so quite directly,” Muñoz said. “She didn’t quite say, ‘You got this all wrong,’ but that was the tone. And my reaction was, I have got to meet this woman.”

Hearing Cohen raise her point in an appropriate, assertive, peer-to-peer way was, Muñoz said, where she felt respect begin in their relationship.

After Muñoz’s presentation, Cohen and her fellow students spent a few minutes filling out evaluations. Cohen remembers hoping Muñoz would wait to speak with her more, but not expecting it. And yet, when Cohen finally exited the room, there Muñoz stood in the hallway, ready to exchange information and talk further.

When it comes to trust, Cohen said, “That’s what did it for me.”

Cohen ended up switching disciplines to take classes with Muñoz as a Communication Studies major, with an Arabic minor. She later became an undergraduate Teaching Assistant for one of Muñoz’s classes. Since Cohen is in her 30s, age makes her a non-traditional student, and it also elevated her leadership during class with a sense of wisdom and experience uncommon for many undergraduates, Muñoz said.

Some of that life experience comes from Cohen’s background in New York, where she worked as a hair stylist for more than 10 years. Her move to Iowa City resulted in a significant culture shock. Being African-American in predominantly white Iowa City made her conspicuous in a way she hadn’t experienced in New York. Also, the relative quietness of a town Iowa City’s size lay in startling contrast to Brooklyn, where she’d previously lived.

Interactions with others was one of the biggest adjustments, she said.

“I became really aware of my color here,” she said. “I found I’d cut my small talk to a minimum, because I can’t trust the conversation not to derail to race,” she said.

For instance, there was the time Cohen, a server at a local gastropub, was asked about craft beer. When she answered knowledgeably, the patron remarked he thought, “Black women don't like beer. Black people hate beer.”

Part of what gets her through such incidents is her study of communication. Phenomena she had always seen and understood on a personal level she now sees through an academic lens as well. They made for worthy material for Communication Studies papers, at the very least. And learning there was a name and theory behind such occurrences was welcome, she said.

Cohen has used her knowledge and her voice many times to help the community improve when it comes to respecting different kinds of diversity. When she sees a situation that could adversely affect other students, she speaks up. It’s a tough place to be, she said, especially in the case of race. In a mostly white town like Iowa City, people of color are often called upon to educate on social issues only to have their claims’ legitimacy questioned or challenged.

Cohen likens it to a bee sting, an analogy she once saw in a YouTube video. It’s as if she’s just spoken about having been stung by a bee, and others jumped straight to defending the bee: “Maybe something else got on the bee’s nerves, or maybe the bee was just having a bad day.” Meanwhile, the fact remains that her skin still stings, and that fact can be overshadowed if the conversation’s focus is on absolving the bee of wrong-doing. The example often holds true, she said, when discussing a race-based micro or macroaggression that occurred on campus.

In the face of such challenges, one strategy she employs to thrive at the UI is to have 10 or so individuals who are always supportive of her university experience.

“What I’ve found here is that when you’re out of your element, you have to create [a touchstone],” she said. “I kind of created my own team, my own Angela Support Team.”

Muñoz is one of these individuals. The two have discussed research and personal accounts about race and dialect often—but it’s only been through years of openness and honesty that they were able to achieve the dynamic they now have together.

Cohen’s university experience presented her with other difficult realities to contend with, as well. Raised by her grandparents, she lost her grandfather this past year. He was a huge supporter of her education, and the loss was enormous. Cohen also has a disability/chronic illness that resulted in chronic pain and caused her to miss school and work. After some self-advocacy, she was able to get accommodations through Student Disability Services. And through her time here, she juggled school and full-time work—a delicate balance to maintain.

“There are days when I have to make a choice between work and class—making the extra bucks to pay the rent versus going to that lecture,” she said. “It’s a difficult line, but I feel like I did it well.”

“The proof,” Muñoz said in response to Cohen, “is that [soon] you’re going to be walking across that stage.”

Cohen’s walk across the stage isn’t one that either woman takes for granted. Up until recently, Cohen hadn’t planned to walk at commencement.

“To me, walking represents a sense of pride, but I also want to be very honest about how it went,” she said of her “bittersweet” time at the UI.

But Muñoz pressed Cohen to reconsider. In fact, Muñoz volunteered to read names at Cohen’s commencement specifically so that she could read her name at the ceremony. Cohen’s family will be traveling up from Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate—including her mother, who Cohen says she “wouldn’t have survived without,” in her junior and senior year particularly, making it possible for Cohen to focus on studies rather than serving tables. The group will come together for a graduation party at Muñoz’s home afterward.

“I don’t know how many University of Iowa faculty get to have this kind of connection to students,” Muñoz said. “When we’re teaching 150-200 of them per semester, to get to know one them the way I have known Angela—to know one way or another we’ll be connected for life—is just a treasure.”

It seems like a lifetime ago that Cohen and Muñoz were locking proverbial horns over a point about dialect at a summer presentation. Cohen’s contention during that exchange didn’t come from a place of malice. In fact, Cohen said, it was fun—albeit, fun in a heated way.

In describing the era that marks their first meeting to their current relationship, Cohen and Muñoz turn again to Communication Studies to make sense of it.

“Maybe that’s where trust comes from,” Muñoz said. “From a communication standpoint, it’s not enough that somebody shows you respect; you have to recognize that’s what they’re doing. Somehow that’s what happened in that moment, and that kept happening.”

--Story by Nora Heaton

The Department of Communication Studies is part of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 68 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.