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Feature: Jennifer Sasser

"...who we become as we travel through the life course happens in the context of the web of relationships of which we are a part . . . And, if we are fortunate, we have people in our lives who see us, are interested in us – who behold us – who are so curious about us that they read what we read so they can discuss new ideas with us, as my Gramma did for me."

These lines from Jennifer Sasser's essay Gramma Jewell sum up the importance a single person can have on an individual life.

Jenny, chair of Marylhurst University's Department of Human Sciences, is a prolific scholar, award-winning teacher and national expert on gerontology. But she claims she would be none of those things without the influence of her maternal grandmother.

A maternal mentor

Jenny's parents were quite young when they married and started a family. Shortly after Jenny was born in 1966, her father left to serve in the Vietnam War. While he was away, Jenny and her young mom lived with her grandparents, and Jenny bonded with her grandmother, Jewell. After her father's return from the war, and a difficult reunion as a family, her brother Jeremy was born with a congenital disorder that left him profoundly deaf, and led to significant visual impairment during his childhood.

Throughout these challenging years of her young life, Jenny was inspired by her grandfather, the only member of her family with a college degree. But it was her grandmother who gave her the support, guidance and will to chart a new path, and sparked a lifelong personal and professional interest in gerontology.

"My grandmother chose me as someone she was going to watch over and believe in," Jenny recalled. "She wasn't an old woman – maybe in her 40s when I was growing up – but she was my grandma, and I was really fascinated by that and what that meant to me."

Just as important, her grandmother helped turn a horrific childhood event into one that changed Jenny's life for the better.

When she was in first grade, Jenny suffered third-degree burns in a school accident. Her arm was burned nearly down to the bone. The school district created a trust fund for Jenny to have plastic surgery. But her grandmother encouraged her to use the money differently.

"My grandmother planted the idea to use the money to go to college, not to get plastic surgery," Jenny said. "She wanted to save me because she thought I was capable of doing great things."

From musician to gerontologist

By any definition, Jenny has done just that. She attended Willamette University on a music scholarship – she's a classical flutist – and double-majored in music and psychology. She went on to earn a master's degree from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from Oregon State University. She received the very first AARP/Andrus Foundation Gerontology Doctoral Fellowship, which funded her dissertation research. She came to Marylhurst in 1997.

"There's a direct connection between my past and who I am as an educator," Jenny said. "Much of my experience has been a combination of things totally out of my control, and choices that I made. What I learned is that I have a huge capacity to deal with complexity and things that can't be explained. I'm curious about how we live with complexity rather than trying to reduce it."

Her curiosity has spilled over into a fascination with how humans travel through life accumulating experiences, and how they change based on those experiences.

"Do we grow more flexible, more involved and more engaged, or do we shut down and narrow our focus?" Jenny asked. "It's a complicated balance between gains and losses."

A challenging but engaging teacher

Jenny is lauded by students and colleagues alike for her serious but engaging approach to teaching. She won the university's Trustees' Excellence Award in 2010 and the Excellence in Academic Service and Teaching Award in 2008, and in 2012 was presented with the Distinguished Faculty Award by the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.

"I like my students to engage in experiential learning. Students tell me I'm real, that I'm understanding, that I'm not wedded to content," Jenny said. "I really want each person to move off their baseline in a way that's meaningful to them. I'm not a conveyor of information – we're creating it together."

Jenny directs Marylhurst's  gerontology program and coauthored a leading gerontology textbook. A self-described "gero-punk," she practices "gerontological anarchy" and "intentional aging"; she wants to upend traditional thinking about aging, and create new norms for our experiences on life's journey. As she writes in her essay Mid-point,

"We humans are time travelers, living simultaneously in the past, present and future. I, for one, must exercise care about when and how I enter into the past or the future, as traveling in either direction takes me away from the present, and the present is the domain under my greatest purview and influence."

"I want individual students to walk away at the end of the term with a profound sense of their own sovereignty and agency, with an understanding they have a right to speak and to be known and to do cool, powerful things in life," Jenny said.

"What a gift it is to be educated in a place like this, where we have the time to explore all of that."

Read essays by Jenny Sasser and other gero-punks at the Gero-Punk Project.

View other Marylhurst features

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