Dr. Jennifer Sasser, human sciences chair and gerontology program director, is one of several experts who will lead Oregon Humanities' Talking About Dying Series starting in September 2015.
We got our first computer when I was about eight or nine. It was one of those giant, heavy boxes that only had word processing capabilities, an Encarta CD, and a DOS printer. My sister and I spent hours playing on Encarta, learning about cultures we would probably never experience firsthand, and singing all of the songs. Later on, my mom worked for a computer manufacturing company, and we got the Internet. That opened up the world just a little bit more because we found chat rooms and could talk to real live people from other cultures.
I have grown up watching computers change, and their capabilities expand beyond anything I ever imagined. They have opened up my world, and I am watching the world of literature and writing expand in much the same way. I want to embrace and even enact this change and see where it takes me.
When Megan Harrison talks, you listen. Not because she is particularly formidable or a powerful orator, but because she possesses a quiet passion and eloquence. Soft-spoken and modest, Megan is both a romanticist of literature and a savvy media geek. She is part of the generation that witnessed the birth of the modern Internet and the subsequent explosion of possibilities. She understands that her professional future will be informed and influenced by digital technology, and yet she remains fully in love with words, literature and ink text on book pages.
It is not surprising, then, that Megan is a student in the inaugural BA in English Literature & New Media cohort at Marylhurst, now in its third term. It is a place where she can pursue, explore and intersect the analog and the digital, Tennyson and Twitter, medieval manuscripts and e-literature.
The return to college
Like many of her cohort — and Marylhurst students, in general — Megan returned to college after a break. In her case, it was nearly 10 years.
"I went straight to college from high school at 18 years old. I spent more time on social stuff, and classes were okay, but I wasn't taking anything that was inspiring or great. I just wasn't focused," she shared.
So she left college in order to work and sort out her own ambitions.
Those are now sorted. "I realized that I wanted to return to school and focus on English and writing," she said. "I really love to write."
Megan also knew that she wanted something more than a traditional English program:
"More and more, we are becoming a society that spends our time online. It's where our information comes from. I don't know what I want to do exactly when I'm done [with the program], but I kept thinking that new media is the second piece of this. That extra edge in the job market. When I saw the description of the English & New Media program, it clicked. I thought, 'That's what I want to do.'"
After two terms, Megan has already witnessed a drastic difference between her current and previous academic experiences. The most rewarding aspect of her program? The rediscovery of her voice.
"I spent a lot of years just working. I'm remembering that I really can write. It's brought back my passions. I think I put those on the backburner for a long time."
The program has certainly challenged her writing — and the sharing of it. Many of her classes require course blogs that are accessible to the general public. Writing prompts, prose and other assignments are published to an audience far larger than her class or cohort.
"Honestly, at first, it scared the heck out of me," Megan shared. "Not because I didn't know my way around the computer, but having your writing out there for everybody to read is really intimidating. You don't know what the response is going to be.
"You get a little more comfortable with it as you go on. I think it's a process. I like to think that it's forcing me out of my shell."
There is a long-term benefit, as well, she pointed out: "One of these days it'll be easier if I have to write something publicly for a lot of people to read. I've already put my stuff out there."
Balance, boundaries and support
While it has been rewarding, returning to college has not been an easy endeavor. As a wife and the mother of three-year-old twins, navigating family life and a full-time student course load requires strategy and sacrifice. Megan spends the days with her sons and completes homework during their nap time or in the evenings after they're in bed.
"I'm really adamant that my schoolwork doesn't cut into my time with them," she says. Sometimes that means she stays awake through the night in order to finish a paper. One to two o'clock in the morning has become a familiar study period.
"It is a little stressful, but I don't think there was any other way I could do this," Megan admits. "I needed a flexible program I could complete from home, here in Idaho. I don't think I could have worked out an on-campus program. This program has given me the opportunity to actually go back and get my education."
The stress is bearable for Megan, thanks, in part, to the strong support network of cohort members and instructors. Unlike other student groups, the English Literature & New Media students support each other almost entirely online.
"If we have a question on a project, it's really easy to hop on Twitter or send them an email. We try really hard to be involved in one another's lives.
"I had never taken online classes before. I kept thinking that it was going to be lonely, but I've met all these English nerds, and we all support each other. I think our meeting face-to-face for three days [for orientation] sparked something. It really set us up to build relationships."
Her instructors have also had a significant influence on the program's experience: "Having teachers who believe in me and care about my success has made all of the difference. I have never had teachers that were this invested."
Megan gave the example of program director Dr. Keri Behre encouraging her to apply for the Binford Writing Scholarship. She applied and was awarded the scholarship this year. "Prior to Marylhurst, I have never had a professor remember my name beyond a semester, let alone try to help me be successful. This is a very different experience from anything I've ever had, and I'm just so thankful."
A new list of possibilities
Megan may not have concrete plans for her career after graduation, but she does have a fairly good idea. She adores children's literature — her all-time favorite author is Maurice Sendak — and enjoys working with children, especially in the field of literacy. A librarian, reading or literacy specialist seems like a natural outlet for her passions: "I read more and more about [literacy] and realize that crime rates are directly related to how literate a population is. It starts with that."
What's more: Megan understands that the ways in which we read, write and communicate are drastically changing. Libraries are becoming e-books, librarians are becoming digital archivists and digital literacy is becoming just as important as traditional reading skills in order to succeed and thrive in today's interconnected world.
No matter which professional direction Megan ends up choosing, she acknowledges that her experience at Marylhurst is preparing her for a successful future.
"I have been everything from a personal assistant to a bank teller, and while I regret none of it, this program has opened my eyes to a whole new list of possibilities."