Willamette professors advise students to explore their interests

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On Thursday, Sept. 19, three Willamette professors spoke about their life experiences and what brought them to Willamette.

During the convocation, Joyce Millen of the Anthropology DepartmentChris Smith of the Biology Department and Courtney Stevens of the Psychology Department shared their stories.

Joyce Millen

“I had no inclination as a child, young adult or adult that I was going to be a professor,” anthropology professor Joyce Millen says.

Along with her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and her undergraduate studies in international affairs, Millen was motivated to study anthropology due to the alarming facts of the growing global wealth gap.

Millen was appalled when she learned that the richest 200 people have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion people combined. This is greater than all the wealth in Brazil, the United States, China and India, she says.

She questioned why the wealth was so unfairly distributed, and the more educated she became, the more she wanted to educate students on the topic so they could “take what they learned into the world and make it better.”

In addition to a doctorate in medical anthropology, Millen also holds degrees in public health and international relations and has experience working as the director of the Institute for Health and Social Justice of Partners in Health in Boston.

While in Boston, she also taught in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

According to Millen, “understanding situations is just the beginning.” Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” was one of the main reasons she came to Willamette — saying she felt it cultivated an altruistic environment that encouraged students to take their education and do something positive with it.

Chris Smith

Biology professor Chris Smith says he had an interest in biology ever since he was little, when he carried around a botany notebook with him wherever he went. He had also always considered becoming a professor. However, there were a few moments of doubt throughout his life.

Beginning his academic journey at the University of Arizona, Smith says he attended the university to be with his friends. He wasn’t particularly motivated, and even realized part way through the semester that he hadn’t been attending one of his classes the entire semester.

As he continued to earn lower grades, Smith says he was fed up with biology. He decided to take history and other liberal arts courses because they came easier to him.

But when his quest to design his own major — consisting of forestry, philosophy and linguistics — failed, he decided to pursue his biology courses after all, taking most of the requirements his final year.

He realized then that he liked overcoming the challenges of biology rather than gliding through other courses.

He took a year off upon graduation and worked in Chicago. He says he found he really liked teaching, but says “others around me thought there must be something wrong with me since I enjoyed teaching and working individually with the students.”

After earning his doctorate at Harvard University in 2003, Smith soon began at Willamette — the small, liberal arts university he was looking for where “loving to teach” was encouraged.

Smith advises students to know “there is value in pushing through when things become difficult.”

Courtney Stevens

Psychology professor Courtney Stevens had no idea she would end up at Willamette. Though she ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from Reed College, she began college as a declared biochemistry major.

A few semesters later, she realized how much time she would have to spend in the lab and was told that she had to love being there. “I couldn’t image a worse fate for myself!” Stephens says.

She wanted to understand how the brain processes language, so she pursued linguistics instead. One of her mentors told her to “find what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” So that’s what she did.

After earning her Master of Science and doctorate degrees in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Oregon, Stevens joined the WU faculty in 2008. “For me, there is no better place to be,” she says. “I feel like a child in a play box.”

Stevens advises current students to find the things they love, as well as the things they don’t love. She says it’s important to take time and reflect upon the reasons why they do not love something and learn how to move forward from there.

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