By Abra Bennett
WWCC Writer in Residence
The NEA Foundation has announced that Susan Palmer, Professor of Sociology at Walla Walla Community College, is one of 38 public educators nationwide who will receive the prestigious California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence. Awardees are nominated by their peers for their dedication to the profession, community engagement, professional development, attention to diversity, and advocacy for fellow educators.
Palmer, who previously taught at Whitman College and the University of Idaho in Moscow, has been teaching at WWCC since 1998. She freely admits that she is over the moon about the award. “Receiving the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence for Washington State is the singular greatest honor in my entire career. I was deeply moved to be nominated by my colleagues in the local executive leadership of the WWCC Association for Higher Education, and unexpectedly honored to be further nominated by the statewide leadership of the Washington Education Association.”
She was born in Vermillion, South Dakota, where her father taught sociology at the University of South Dakota. When she was eleven, her family moved to Toledo, Ohio, where her father became the chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at the University of Toledo.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Palmer herself went on to study at the University of Toledo, earning her undergraduate degree there as well as a Master’s degree in Sociology. She pursued additional studies in sociology in the doctoral program at Rutgers University.
Her arrival at WWCC from her home in Moscow, Idaho was a serendipitous one that involved a serious commitment to being on the road. As she remembers it, “In 1998, while looking for the Sunday Jumble in the classified section of the Lewiston Morning Tribune, directly opposite the Jumble next to the crease in the Classifieds, I saw my dream job advertised: a sociology instructor position at WWCC. I was hired that fall quarter, commuting weekly for ten years until we sold our home in Moscow and purchased our home in Walla Walla in 2007. My spouse then commuted for four years before retiring in 2011.”
Her colleagues describe her as a passionate teacher who “walks her talk,” embracing diversity in civic society, and whose sociology classes focus on inequality and privilege. As an advocate for diversity, she champions the right of all people to access higher education. In pursuit of that ideal she has undertaken advanced language studies in Spanish in order to better communicate with her students, and has taught at WWCC’s Washington State Penitentiary campus.
“Susan Palmer thoroughly merits this prestigious award, which recognizes her stature locally, regionally, and nationally as a leader in her field and as an innovative teacher who has transformed countless students’ lives,” says Dr. Richard Middleton-Kaplan, WWCC Dean of Arts and Sciences. “She teaches each student as a distinct individual worthy of respect, deserving of higher education, and capable of learning. The WWCC community is honored to have Susan as an instructor, colleague, mentor, and friend.”
The feeling is clearly mutual. Palmer responds, “Although prior to WWCC, I taught at a variety of prestigious baccalaureate colleges and universities, hands down, WWCC is my all-time favorite teaching and learning environment. The first day on the job, I recognized the shared passion for and commitment to quality teaching among my colleagues. No words do justice to convey their exceptionalism.”
Since 2009 she has continued to honor her father’s legacy by funding the Neil M. Palmer Award for Excellence in Sociology Writing, for which a committee of professors chooses the best sociology term paper of the year, and awards the student a cash prize. Several of her fellow committee members describe her mentorship of the students through the research and writing process as unparalleled.
WWCC Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ruth Russo sings her praises, saying that “Susan Palmer lives with deep integrity, in the sense that the content of her teaching, her concern for each and every student, and her community activism all spring from the same source.”
Russo goes on to tell this story about Palmer’s impact on her students. “One of her students, a student of color, was leaving Susan’s class recently, when another teacher greeted him, asking ‘How was sociology today?’ The student made a gesture with his hands showing that his head was exploding. ‘Everything I ever thought I knew about race is wrong,’ he shouted, bursting into laughter. That’s the power of Susan Palmer.”