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.
Dr. Susan E. Marcus is the first to acknowledge that her life journey has not been typical.
"My path was pretty weird," she said. "I'm the consummate late bloomer and lifelong learner."
It is this "weird" path — high school dropout to chair of the MBA programs at Marylhurst University — that gives Susan a unique perspective, and one that she brings to all her endeavors, whether it's teaching or public speaking or working on behalf of social causes.
College was never discussed in Susan's family during her childhood years. It was literally absent from the conversation. So when, at the age of 16, her family began to splinter into different directions, Susan dropped out of high school. She worked odd jobs and spent a lot of time in the Central Library in downtown Portland, Oregon.
"I remember practically living in the room where the biographies are," Susan said, "trying to glean some direction from other people's lives."
Susan recalls the unfettered feeling of that time period of her life. "I didn't really have a map or a sense of the 'correct' direction. I didn't have a role model to say: 'This is how you do it.'"
She worked, traveled and entered into a teenage marriage, which only lasted a few years. Single parenthood quickly brought any remnants of aimlessness to a halt. Susan's priority was to provide for her daughter, Claire, through a variety of jobs — from piecework sewing to delivering phonebooks to driving cabs. During this time, she took her GED at Portland Community College. She met a few people who encouraged her to pursue higher education; it was the first time Susan had ever received positive input about her own potential and the word "college" in the same sentence.
While encouraging, she was not ready to shift her focus away from earning a living. Susan took the postal exam and was hired with the U.S. Postal Service, where she gained experience in project management and marketing, along with opportunities for special assignments around the country.
Taking the leap into education
As her 12th anniversary with the Postal Service was approaching, Susan journeyed to Guatemala in search of her brother, who had fallen out of contact with the family. There, she witnessed poverty and the remittance economy of the country, something she had also seen during trips to the Philippines. The economic injustice struck a deep chord within her. Upon returning to Portland, and with the support and encouragement of her husband to "follow her heart," Susan submitted her resignation.
"Everyone thought I was crazy. For me, it was a crossroads," Susan said. "I asked myself: How is this job making a difference? Affecting change?" Susan had discovered that fusing her career with her values was crucial, and she "ran head on" into higher education to obtain the degrees and learning necessary to work in her desired field.
Meanwhile, her daughter — the first person in Susan's family to attend college — moved home and began work on her master's degree at Portland State University. Susan recalls reading textbooks over her daughter's shoulder and being attracted to the material and its possibilities. She had found her role model.
After degree completion work through Eastern Oregon University, Susan chose a graduate school track at PSU in training and development to help with her work in project management for low-income housing. She followed that degree with a second one — an MBA.
Looking back, Susan remembers her initial sense of awe that accompanied her master's courses. She could hardly believe she was sitting in the same classroom as other graduate students. Over time, those feelings dissipated as she realized that grad students were "just people," who were attempting to expand their options as she was.
"I discovered that higher ed was transformative," she shared. "It's not just the end goal; it's the journey along the way."
Susan finished her MBA in 2001 and was presented with the opportunity to teach students in East Russia. Watching adults transform in response to her encouragement uncovered a passion. She returned home to earn a Ph.D. and teach at the university level.
The Marylhurst chapter—and beyond
Susan first came to Marylhurst to work on the design team for the MBA in Sustainable Business. When a curriculum specialist position opened, Susan jumped at the opportunity to become a full-time member of the department.
She is now chair of the MBA Department at Marylhurst and interim chair of the MBA in Health Care Management program. She believes that having someone with an nontraditional path is helpful in leading the MBA programs.
"It brings a different perspective," she said. "I'm able to listen to applicants, students and what has brought them to the program, and I can speak to that in ways that someone who has spent their life in academia possibly cannot bring."
Another attribute that Susan brings to the programs and her classes is her commitment to respectful, transformative dialogue — and connecting it to action. The same values that prompted her to leave the Postal Service continue to influence and shape her work today.
"Tackling socio-economic issues starts with mindfulness and an intentionality of bringing multiple voices — especially those that are marginalized — into the conversation. I invite students to bring their values into class conversations. Our MBA students get an additional layer of perspective and the encouragement to be more thoughtful citizens of the world.
"If students are really listening to each other, they're going to absorb and transform. Some could be in classes with people they believe they couldn't be more different than, but then they're asked to consider what makes those differences? How did they arrive where they are now? I think that's where our small class sizes — both online and on ground — assist with students' ability to engage with each other. You are interacting and learning from each other and being transformed by each other and appreciating one another."
And, for Susan, those are the building blocks to creating long-term positive change — an opportunity and a biography that her 16-year-old self could have hardly imagined.