By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
What makes Walla Walla Community College so special? We share many of our core values with our sister colleges and universities: integrity, excellence, innovation, and professional development. And at WWCC we pride ourselves on, and do everything we can to encourage, an additional set of values: diversity, inclusiveness, providing opportunity to students who might otherwise never have a college education, and being home to a faculty that is committed to living these values every day.
For 33 years we were fortunate enough to have Dr. Marleen Ramsey, who retired at the end of 2017, working in a variety of capacities at the college. In every position she held she lived and breathed these values, and her own life story was an inspiration to countless students, as well as to her colleagues.
She was born in Seoul at the height of the Korean War. A self-described “war waif,” her opening chapter was part of a story we’ve all come to know, through so many wars. Her mother was a Korean peasant with no formal education. Her father was an American soldier who was seriously injured in battle two months before she was born. He was taken to a Japanese hospital and died there, leaving her mother with no way to support a bi-racial child born out of wedlock.
One might say that she had pretty much everything going against her right from the start. Yet when she retired from WWCC at the end of last year, it was from the position of Vice President of Instruction, one of the most important jobs at the college. Her journey exemplifies the struggles that so many of our students face, and shows us all how great success can have its roots in the most humble beginnings.
Wearing a new dress and shoes, and a little heart locket holding her mother’s and her own pictures and with their birthdates engraved on it, she set out for Seattle at the age of three. She had last seen her mother, who wanted a better life for Marleen but could scarcely bear to let her go, weeping as her daughter was led to the airplane that would take her to a new life. Luckily neither of them knew then that they would never see each other again.
On arrival at SeaTac she was met by a man in a cowboy hat and boots, and a woman who was introduced as her new mother. Not wanting a new mother, she threw herself on the airport floor and, hard as it is for those who know her now to imagine, had a screaming temper-tantrum. And then the strangers took her home to Cottage Grove, Oregon, where she grew up in a family she describes as loving and supportive.
Like the parents of many WWCC students, her adoptive parents didn’t have a college education themselves. But they wanted one for Marleen, and they instilled in her the desire to educate and better herself.
When she came to Walla Walla in 1984 she had two young daughters, a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, and no job. Needing to support her children, she took an office assistant position at WWCC. A year later she began working on her Master’s degree in counseling psychology, which she obtained in 1987.
She went on to teach as a tenured psychology faculty member in the social sciences division, then as director of the Transitional Studies program, where she supported faculty in teaching adult learners preparing for college-level work. Subsequently she was a veteran’s benefits counselor, taught psychology both on the main campus and at the penitentiary, obtained her PhD while working full time, and in 2010 was appointed Vice President of Instruction.
Her colleagues praised her “striving unrelentingly to do what is right,” her “leadership, caring, and generosity,” and the way she “fostered a culture of kindness” at the college. Our society and our college have greater need of these traits than ever, and we will continue to work hard to follow Marleen’s example.
She also did research in South Africa around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s focus on amnesty and forgiveness, something else that is in short supply these days. An internationally recognized expert and speaker on matters related to forgiveness, healing, and redemption, she collaborated with the psychology department at the University of Cape Town in South Africa by submitting a chapter for a book that dealt with issues related to that country’s truth and reconciliation process after decades of apartheid.
Marleen left us with a three-decade legacy of service and commitment, and has set a high bar for students who hope to challenge and overcome their own obstacles. As she leaves her mark on so many of us, and on the college, she remains a person who truly represents what we are all about at WWCC.
What does she plan for retirement? “I will be like a hobbit,” she joked, “have a second cup of coffee, early breakfast, a second breakfast. Then I’ll get busy, spend time with my three grandsons, maybe get on a wellness kick, clean every cupboard in my kitchen. Then, of course, I’ll start to figure out what else I can do to learn and grow and help.”
Some wonders never cease, nor should they.