Thomas Justman ’12

Why did you come to Willamette—and why did you major in English?

Honestly, I chose Willamette because it was closer to my home than Reed College. My sister went to Reed and loved it. I, however, cannot imagine a better college experience than the one I’ve had here. Prior to transferring from a community college, I sat in on a feminist history course and had my mind blown—it was just great. But when I began attending as a history major, I found that my history classes didn’t interest me as much as my English classes. While I’ve always been a voracious reader, my high school and community college English classes gave me the impression that English was less serious than other subjects, and that if one loved reading and writing it was best to study English outside of school. How wrong I was! Willamette’s English classes challenged me to think and write about the human world with creative purposefulness, and classrooms became indispensable, collaborative communities.

You didn’t go straight from high school to college, right? How has being a “non-traditional” student affected your experience at Willamette?

Being a “non-trad” student has significant advantages and disadvantages. First and foremost, there is the horrifically difficult juggling act between school and family—the most significant challenge I faced as an undergrad. I lived and breathed school all day, and then, in order to focus on my spouse and children, I had to purge it from my mind entirely. However, my family also provided an impetus that many Willamette students may not have: I knew that I had to do well in school because the hardship I was putting my family through would provide future financial benefits. Furthermore, the ten years between high school and college—lovely years but full of struggle—gave me experiences outside of academia, and I was able to relate them to my analyses of written works, using my “real life” insights to glean a more complete sense of the people and characters I read about.

Tell me about your senior thesis.

I took the Senior Humanities Seminar on Toni Morrison’s Beloved and wrote about subjects of masculinity, home, and family that I don’t think would have been apparent to me if I’d been less involved with my own home and family. In a nutshell, my thesis involves the ways in which slavery-related traumas combat a black man’s desire to form lasting love bonds and home spaces. One of the goals of the senior thesis is to do original scholarship, and the prospect of trying to do anything original with Beloved initially frustrated me, because it’s so widely discussed. But after reading it several times, discussing it VERY closely with my professor and classmates, and studying numerous critical essays, it was quite remarkable to see my brain’s originality at work. Really, it was the most satisfying writing I’ve ever done—the most satisfying and the most demanding.

This summer (2012), you’re working with the Humanity in Perspective (HIP) program sponsored by Oregon Humanities. What’s that like?

HIP provides low income adults, who do not already have college degrees, access to high-quality instruction. (I would have benefited from HIP greatly at the beginning of my college experience!) Three great Willamette professors share the teaching load, but I serve as an additional support resource for students and help them with anything they need, from paper writing to balancing school, work, and family. I put myself out there so that students can benefit from my own experiences as an older student—especially, for example, dealing with how foreign classrooms can be after a lengthy absence. I’m looking forward to a fantastic summer term!

What’s the future have in store?

In the fall, I will enter Willamette’s Master of Arts in Teaching program for Language Arts and Social Studies. Ultimately, I hope to surmount the challenges many public school teachers face—primarily large class sizes and wide ranges of student ability—and give students an idea how great English classes can be before they get to college. While I will try to reach all students, I especially want to reach the numerous students who are intelligent but apathetic and who, I think, have fallen through cracks in our educational system—perhaps students who feel, for whatever reason, that too much of school is “dumbed down”; that’s just how I felt as a youth, which was a significant factor leading to my dropping out of high school. Thus, drawing on my own example, I hope to encourage students to stick with education.