Women inspire, mentor, advise

On the second floor of Marston Hall, you can find the office of Dr. Peg Achterman, an assistant professor of communications.

A curtain hangs just to the left when you enter her room, and her desk is pushed against the far wall, just under the window, giving her and anyone else in the room a view of Ames Library, Gwinn Commons and Weter Hall.

Next to her desk, on the right side, is a white couch students often get the pleasure of sitting on when they come in for advising, or just to talk.

Lately, Achterman has also kept a fuzzy blanket near said couch in case a nap is called for.

Still fairly new to SPU, Achterman joined the communications family in 2014 after serving five years at Northwest University in Kirkland, teaching courses on mass communications, digital media and multimedia.

“When the opening [for SPU] came up, I threw my hat in the rain,” she said with a smile. “For one thing, SPU is a much better mission fit for me than Northwest. It’s a little more global and a little more open in its thinking.”

All across campus, in various departments, there are women, like Achterman, who have taken on roles in the SPU community, that provide advice, service and guidance not only to the students, but to the community as a whole. They each have their own story to tell, offering a glimpse of the diversity this campus offers.

Among these distinct narratives, there are those who not only struggle keeping a balance with their academic and personal lives, they are also battling their own bodies.

Several members of SPU have been diagnosed with some ailment in the past or are currently still active in their fight.

Marissa Lordahl | The Falcon
Achterman wants to inspire young women to “break the mold,” stepping away from the traditional roles the Christian church has often projected onto them.

Almost three years ago, Achterman was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

She remembers having this “funny lump” that the doctor took out in surgery. They biopsied it and told her she had lymphoma.

It was scary, Achterman said, but thankfully, she had a friend she went to Bible study with who was an oncologist. She got in touch with him quickly.

“Bless his heart,” Achterman said, laughing at the memory. “He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’ll die from something else.’”

He told her not to worry too much, though they did have to run scans and tests. So, for the last three years, Achterman has been scanned every six months.

If she had been diagnosed two years earlier, one doctor told her, they would have treated her with a drug, but now, they prefer to do what they call “watchful waiting.”

They told her that her immune system might actually take care of the lymphoma for her, but they would keep an eye on her just in case something came up.

Achterman went about her life, but then, last spring, she grew another lump, one that grew faster than the first.

She was due for another scan at the time; they decided to take that one out as well and found that her lymphoma had been bumped up one stage.

No longer was it this benign thing anymore, Achterman said, but neither was it very serious yet; it was somewhere in between.

We’d like to kill it now, they told her. Little did she know that this meant going through chemotherapy.

“It was hard in a different way than I was used to … I was used to hard physical things, like rowing and hiking and climbing and doing things,” she said, “but this was a different hard. It was emotional.”

Through all this, she continued to be there for her students and advisees, including one student who came in for advising one time, sat down and told Achterman, “I just want to be a mom.”
Achterman looked at her and said, “First of all, remove the ‘just’ because being a mom is just about the hardest thing you can do. It’s really, really hard, so there’s no ‘just’ about it.”

Assistant Professor of Urban Studies Katherine Ness can attest to this.

She was pregnant with her first child, her daughter Izzy, while studying for her PhD at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Her son Arlo, on the other hand, was born on the first day of class when she worked at Kansas State University.

She taught class that day and then went to the hospital where her son was born 20 minutes later.

Her first term at Kansas State, Nesse set up a nursery in her office and hired a part-time nanny to be with them.

The nanny watched him during Nesse’s classes and some meetings; other times, he came to meetings with Nesse and took naps in the office.

“That went on for the first five months of his life. Then we found daycare once he was more mobile and engaged,” Nesse explained.

Courtesy of Katherine Nesse
Katherine Nesse of the sociology department with her husband Scott, daughter Izzy and son Arlo.

Her coworkers at the university were very supportive, she notes, and considers it a good experience for her. While she does not think it a path meant for everyone, she was glad it worked out for her and her department at Kansas State.

“It made me realize that flexibility around family and medical leave can lead to more helpful and mutually beneficial arrangements,” she added.

Thinking back, while still in her first pregnancy, she remembers one of her classmates from the University of Illinois had asked her what she looked forward to most about being a mom.

“I started to list off things like camping with her and skiing and board games. I realized she was asking about baby things, but now my daughter is old enough to start doing all those things I was looking to,” Nesse said. “She turns eight this month and my son is five-and-a-half. It is definitely fun to go on ‘adventures’ with them.”

Like many parents, however, Nesse is not only a full-time mom, but also works to help provide for her family. Because of this, she considers time as the biggest obstacle when it comes to being a parent.

Work and parenthood sometimes clash, but whenever she can find ways to integrate the two, she does, like when she brought her kids to move-in day for Tent City 3.

“My husband works from home, so he is able to take them to the bus in the morning and bring them home from their after-school program,” she explained. “I just wish there was more time to do everything that I want to do with them. I spend so much time commuting. If there were a way to live closer, it would be easier to be more engaged in both parts of my life.”

Like Achterman, Nesse was diagnosed with cancer, except rather than lymphoma, she was diagnosed in April of last year with stage 3A breast cancer; the cancer had spread from the breast to the lymph nodes, but not further.

The cancer is considered curable, but most oncologists recommend aggressive treatment, Nesse explained. So, she started her treatment the next month.

“I started chemotherapy during the last few weeks of spring term last year and continued over the summer,” she said. “In autumn term, I had two surgeries, and over Christmas break and during January, I had radiation treatment. I am now done with all of that. I just have some follow-up drugs.”

With this in mind, Nesse is still unsure how to refer to this era of her treatment.

After five years without cancer, a patient is considered cured. Nesse does not currently have any detectable cancer, but she shies away from the term “cancer-free.”

“Perhaps because I am an academic and like exact language, ‘cancer-free’ sounds like it requires proof and what I have is a lack of something. How do you prove something is not there? A friend of mine said that every day after your diagnosis, you are a ‘cancer survivor,’” she explained. “Perhaps that is the better term.”

Professor of English Susan VanZanten, however, has no problem using the term ‘cancer-free.’ In 2000, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer during a routine mammogram.

“The next year was hell, what with multiple operations and six months of chemotherapy,” she described. “I took medical leave, and the SPU community surrounded me with care.”

One person came and cleaned her house regularly, and countless faculty and staff made and delivered her family dinners. One student babysat her son for free and Kerry Dearborn, SPU professor emerita of theology, planted hyacinths in her yard, which still bloom every spring.

When the purple flowers emerge, their sweet scent piercing the air, VanZanten remembers all the love she experienced during those dark times, she continued.

“That’s where I found God: in the hands and faces of those supporting me. I’ve been cancer-free now for almost 18 years, for which I am completely grateful,” she said.

Before all this, VanZanten went to high school in the small farming town of Lynden, Washington. There, she worked on her school newspaper and dreamed of becoming a journalist.

She couldn’t wait to get out of Lynden and go to college, saying, “Smart girls from Lynden either became nurses or teachers, but I was determined to do neither.”

She found her ideal college in Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara, California. Again, she worked on the school paper and eventually served as an editor and became involved in different kinds of campus politics.

In time, however, she decided that journalism was not for her and she thought about becoming a lawyer, resulting in a double major in political science and English. Yet, she decided that being a lawyer was not for her either.

Then, after a presentation on Faulkner in her English class, her professor said to her, “Have you ever thought about becoming an English professor?”

That one comment changed VanZanten’s life.

After dropping her political science major, which she is only one course short of completing, she applied to graduate schools and ended up at Emory University. She earned both an MA and Ph.D there, specializing in nineteenth-century American literature.

“As much as I loved college, I loved graduate school even more. I clearly was cut out to be an academic,” she said. “Sitting around all day reading, writing and talking about ideas suits me just fine.”

As an academic, she hopes people will see that “the academic search for truth and the religious search for shalom are mutually enhancing.” But she also hopes that they realize that a rich personal life and being kind to others are crucial qualities to include in that search as well.

“Use your brain, but use your heart too,” she said.

This June will conclude her 25th year at SPU and she will then move on to become the dean of Christ College, the Honors College at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

“I’m very excited about this new stage in my career, for Christ College focuses on interdisciplinary work in humanities, with a Christian perspective and close faculty-student interactions,” she explained. “I’m looking forward to supporting the Christian liberal arts in a new role as dean, which is especially appropriate since such an educational vision is what first started me on my vocation path.”

Achterman, while also a fan of teaching, found her journey to be quite different than VanZanten’s.

Prior to coming to teaching, Achterman spent 17 years in the local television news business, much of it with KING Television in Seattle. During her career, she was also able to work as a full time photographer in Anchorage, Alaska, but eventually felt that God was calling her someplace else.

She found an opportunity to teach overseas and accepted a teaching position with the People’s Republic of China. This was around the time of the student strikes and protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Marissa Lordahl | The Falcon
Achterman teaches several communications classes at SPU, engaging her students in interactive discussions.

Hundreds of miles from Beijing, Achterman remembers turning to her teammate and asking her, “Don’t you just want to be there?”

Her teammate, in turn, said she did not even remotely want to be there. Why would she? She then turned to Achterman and said, “I don’t think you’re done with this journalism thing. You just want to be in the middle of everything.”

Achterman eventually ended up at Grass Valley, working in editing and software development. This was around the time television stations were switching over from shooting on tape to digital, and they needed someone to teach and train people in newsrooms the software.

“I spent a ton of time traveling, for five years, and produced a bunch of curriculum for how to teach this software because the engineers had been creating it and it wasn’t very good. So we created a bunch of ways to teach it,” she explained.

Through this, Achterman’s love of teaching was rekindled. She had kept a history major when she was an undergrad because she thought she might teach or coach.

“I decided that I really wanted to do journalism, so I did pursue that,” she said, “but teaching for Grass Valley made me realize that I still really liked teaching.”

Now, she has made SPU her home, and is one of the many women who continued to impact the community in one way or another. As a professor and advisor, she serves as a mentor for students pursuing a degree in communications, but she also says she sometimes feels a call to be an example of not fitting “into the mold.”

“I want young women in particular to be who God wants them to be no matter their marital status or familial status,” she explained. “Go be who God wants you to be career wise and who you are. Know who you are, and that’s a continual thing. It’s important to just be you.”

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