Sociology professor understands what makes relationships tick.
"My greatest reward in teaching is my relationships with students," says sociology Professor Linda Heuser. Her voice is soft, her smile maternal. "And my number one priority is trying to be the best professor I can be, knowing that I can never achieve that goal. I can only get better and better, because there is no such thing as perfection."
Heuser is a self-described lover of people. Her own undergraduate education brought her to Willamette, where she had intended to major in chemistry. But soon she realized that she needed people, and that she could fulfill this need by exploring the field of sociology. Willamette professor emeritus James Bjorkquist was Heuser's first sociology teacher and mentor in the discipline. "In his class, I learned, 'Ah, this is where I need to be. I want to study people, to understand how they tick,'" she recalls.
With Bjorkquist's encouragement, Heuser graduated from Willamette with a double major in sociology and anthropology. She went on to pursue a master's degree in sociology at the University of Illinois, but she so desperately missed the West Coast that she transferred to the University of Oregon (UO) after one year. She again studied social interactions and behavior, but ironically felt isolated from people. "I had always thought of grad school as the ivory tower, but then I realized I needed something else," she says.
After becoming a Ph.D. candidate, Heuser took leave from graduate school and moved to Seattle, where she accepted a job at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute. As project coordinator for the Epidemiological Research Unit, she studied a variety of public health matters, among them the relationship between substance abuse and certain cancers. She also studied the health effects of Agent Orange and the relationship between people's illnesses and the proximity of their residences to high-power transmission lines.
During her seven years at the institute, Heuser was inspired to conduct research on women's emotional reactions to breast cancer. This study, as the subject of her dissertation, was not only a scholarly interest. "After my own diagnosis with breast cancer, I had the sense that women dealt with illness in a much more healthy, constructive fashion than I thought was perceived by people in the medical profession," says Heuser.
To examine the possible disjuncture between breast cancer victims' emotional health and its perception by medical professionals, Heuser began interviewing women in the community, along with doctors and nurses at the institute. "But the interviews became too emotionally draining," says Heuser, "so I decided to do content analysis in published articles, looking for emotional words used in descriptions." In other words, Heuser studied how medical journals and popular periodicals depicted women's emotional dealings with breast cancer.
After earning her Ph.D. at UO, Heuser decided, rather unexpectedly, to try her hand at teaching. She accepted her first teaching job at Northern Illinois University, but once again she found herself desperate to return to the West Coast. It just so happened that Willamette, her alma mater, was searching for a sociology professor, so in 1990 she returned to Oregon to teach sociology, a move she says was the best decision she's made in her life.
At Willamette, Heuser has contributed to both the community and her students. For the past seven years, she has served on the board of directors at the Mid-Valley Women's Crisis Service, an organization that offers refuge and support for women and children who survive domestic and sexual violence. And, as an extension to teaching, she has worked with the Non-Traditional Student Organization, Willamette's service learning task force and the Tokyo International University of America Relations Committee.
This summer, Heuser will travel to Japan as one of six Willamette faculty members chosen to teach courses at Tokyo University's School of Language Communication. "The purpose of our going there is to teach the students in English and provide them with the American style of teaching," she says. "This is an invaluable learning experience for them and for me. I learn so much about Japan and my own culture, because my students offer a different lens for me to look at myself and the U.S."
But even though Heuser is excited to teach abroad, she has a very strong sense of what keeps her at Willamette year after year. "What brought me to Willamette, and why I so enjoyed my experience here as a student, was the learning that took place in a small classroom setting," says Heuser. "I really valued the student-professor relationship. My teachers had cared about me as their student."
And over the years, Heuser has tried to reach out to her students with the same sensitivity and care that her most beloved professors showed her.
Senior sociology major Jenn Heidt says Heuser has been an "incredible mentor," as well as someone who inspires students to think outside the box and examine the world. "She was the person who initially motivated me to pursue independent research," says Heidt. "She really believes in her students, she has been a confidante in my life, and in her I have found comfort and a role model for success. It means so much to me that Linda is more than my professor. She is a friend that I hope to keep for a lifetime."