Gunnar Paulsen ’12

How did you choose Willamette—and why did you major in English?

I came to WU for a number of reasons: I wanted to be part of a Liberal Arts program, and WU has one the best in the Northwest, where I was determined to be.  Salem is also a perfect place for launching explorations of Oregon; the coast, the Cascades, and Portland are all only an hour away.  WU’s proximity to the capitol (it’s right across the street) was a draw too, because of my interest in politics.  But ultimately, it was the streakers on preview day who sealed the deal!  Being a lifelong bibliophile, I believe in the power of literature to reveal the culture around us and also to provide access to our own infinite selves.  Thus, my attraction to English.


In 2011, you did independent summer research and collaborative work with Willamette faculty as part of the Mellon-funded Liberal Arts Research Collaborative (LARC) program at Willamette.  What did you do, and what was that experience like?

I studied the narrative of human development in the Pacific Northwest as it is centrally located in and around the Columbia River, its estuary, and most importantly, its salmon. I tried to do this in a number of ways.  I traveled to relevant sites like the Bonneveille Dam and events like Astoria's Bicentennial.  I went to museums with members of my LARC group who are studying related subjects.  I buried myself in books and essays written about the Northwest and what it means to be a resident of this place.  But best of all, my fellow LARCers and I went boating in the estuary numerous times, checking out from a birds eye view the forces of culture, business, and environmentalism that are constantly competing for control of the river.  After getting salty and soggy, we dried out over fresh Willapa Bay oysters and bedded down at night in our tents.  Eventually, I will finish writing an essay that shares my thoughts and experiences I've had this summer about why salmon have become the ever-present cultural talisman of the Northwest.


You received first prize for an essay you presented at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference for Literature in 2010.  What was that essay about?

Combining the ideas of Slavoj Zizek with Alan Sinfield, I studied the patriarchal-capitalist ideologies in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. My goal was to show how feminist forces in the novella expose faultlines, or weaknesses, in the flawed beliefs of the male characters, leading to their downfall.


How did working as a Writing Associate for College Colloquium shape your English Department experience?

My first year as a Writing Associate actually had very little to do with my English department experience, as I was paired up with (History) Professor Seth Cotlar's class on America's Dysfunctional Food System.  This year might be different though, seeing as I'm working with (English) Professor Makau’s class The Transgendered Experience in America.  As a member of the Writing Center staff, which is a service on campus open to all students who want to cooperatively work on writing assignments, I developed relationships with professors and fellow students that enriched my experience at WU. Working there has also helped me to fine tune my own writing, both technically and thematically.


You served on a search committee when the English Department was hiring a faculty member.  What was that process like?

It was a fantastic experience!  Perhaps most strikingly, it demonstrated WU's commitment to its students.  As one of two students on the search committee comprised mostly of professors, I felt like my input was extremely valuable.  I got to say, from a student’s perspective, whether I would like to take classes from a potential professor, and if I thought he or she was doing interesting work/research.  It was fascinating, not to say daunting, to see what is required to pursue a career at the university level.


What are you doing now?

I live in Salida, Colorado, a fantastic small town of about 5,500, where I work as part of an Office of Surface Mining (OSM)/AmeriCorps VISTA team. This summer (2013), I came out here two months before my official term started and worked with 5-10 year-olds on a historic homestead and ranch teaching them about watersheds, ranching, homesteading, art, gardening, ranch animals, you name it. I've since moved into my principle duties of grant writing, volunteer coordinating, and communications.
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