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Portland is her classroom

‘Gero-punk’ Jenny Sasser leads the College of Health’s first in-person + online program in Portland

Jenny Sasser stands in a long hallway and smiles. She has chin-length grayish brown hair and wears small, round black glasses; a striped button-up shirt; and a beige knit cloche hat with a black brim.

By Kathryn Stroppel
August 9, 2018

Instructor, blogger, author, self-described “gero-punk” and long-time Portlander Jenny Sasser is set to explore the human experience at the university’s new location near Pioneer Square.

Jenny, who earned the moniker “gero-punk” from one of her gerontology graduate students because she enjoys asking critical questions and pushing the boundaries as a gerontologist, most recently taught at Marylhurst University in Portland. This fall, she will teach students earning a bachelor’s degree in human development and family sciences (HDFS) through a mixture of classroom and online instruction.

An undergraduate HDFS degree also is available on campus in Corvallis and Bend and 100 percent online via Oregon State Ecampus. The main difference in this new program is Portland itself; Jenny sees the city as an integral part of her students’ education.

“It isn’t just that a student can participate in the hybrid program without leaving Portland,” she says. “They can deepen their education by being right in the middle of the city and exploring Portland from a new vantage point while also being a member of the OSU community.”

The HDFS program is part of the university’s new center in Portland, and the college joins the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Business as one of the first colleges to offer degrees from that location.

The university and Portland are a good fit, Jenny says. “Portland is a vibrant city, and I’ve been an active and committed Portland citizen for the past 20 years. There are multiple higher education institutions in the Portland metro and outlying areas, each of which offers something special and important to the community and beyond. I believe OSU’s presence in Portland will not only extend the university’s mission in powerful ways, but also offer opportunities for partnering with other educational institutions, non-profits and businesses on behalf of serving the needs of the community. This is a great opportunity for Portland to learn more about OSU, and for OSU to learn more about Portland.”

What kind of experience do you hope students have in the HDFS in-person + online program?

“I hope students will feel that they are a part of something interesting and meaningful. I hope that they will experience Portland as their ‘classroom’ and will immerse themselves as much as they can in the many opportunities for active learning individually and together – both online and in person – that I’m building into the courses I’ll be teaching. I’m planning some ‘field trips’ to take our learning out into the community, make connections between theory and practice, and generate new questions together.

“When I daydream about the new program in downtown Portland, I have images of students not only coming for their classes but arriving early and staying late because they find our building to be a welcoming and supportive environment.”

“This is a great opportunity for Portland to learn more about OSU, and for OSU to learn more about Portland.”

Why are you passionate about studying and writing about aging and the life course?

“Perhaps because of my experience as an older sibling of a brother with significant hearing and visual impairments, as well as because of my own early and lifelong experiences of various forms of physical pain and impairment, since childhood I’ve been interested in issues of embodiment, identity, difference and inclusion. Since girlhood, I’ve been concerned with big philosophical questions about what it means to be a human being, the ways in which humans are diverse in so many ways, and the universal experiences we all share. Being born, developing and aging across the life course (however long one’s life course happens to be), and at some point, dying: these are all universal human experiences that are exquisitely nuanced by the times, places and spaces in which individuals and communities of people

Why did you start the Gero-Punk Project? What’s that community like?

“I started the Gero-Punk Project several years ago when I was chair of human sciences and director of gerontology at Marylhurst University. I had been trying for several years to devote time and energy to various related but unintegrated endeavors that felt essential to me but fell outside to boundaries of my ‘official’ work – exploring more deeply from a personal standpoint the concepts and theories I was teaching in various gerontology courses; writing about aging as a complex lifelong journey in alternative ways such as creative non-fiction and essays; and fostering opportunities for students, colleagues and community members to gather and engage in reflective conversations about human development and aging. The Gero-Punk Project became the way to integrate all of these activities and expand opportunities for my students to be connected to each other and me.

“There are two main components – the virtual international community represented by the blog, where I publish my own and others’ essays; and the more local, embodied community represented by the gero-punk salons where people gather for theme-based reflective conversations.”

Let’s talk about your recent book … why you wrote it and how it pushes boundaries.

“‘Gerontology: The Basics,’ published by Routledge U.K., is a project that my co-author, Harry R. Moody, and I started several years ago. In it, we simultaneously described the multi-faceted and multidisciplinary study and practice devoted to adult aging and deconstructed it, foregrounding the way gerontologists construct knowledge about aging, older persons and later life. What I am most pleased about is that throughout the book we offered juicy questions and ideas for reflection and experiential learning about one’s own travels through the life course. I’m hoping readers will engage with the ideas in the book and come to see aging not as something happening to other people but as a deep, unfolding experience in which they themselves are engaged.”

Tell us about yourself …

“I was born on the Castle Airforce Base in Atwater, California, in 1966. My family – including me, my parents and my younger brother – lived in various parts of the Bay Area until the summer between sixth and seventh grade. My brother was born deaf, and we later discovered that my family carries a genetic disorder called Ushers Syndrome. We moved to Portland so he could attend the Tucker Maxon Oral School, and I lived with my family in Boring, Oregon, until I graduated from high school and left for college.

“I have lived in Portland since 1998. My daughter, Isobel Coen, who is 22, and I moved to Portland after I completed my Ph.D. and began teaching at Marylhurst University. Isobel recently graduated from Bard College and attends graduate school at Sciences Po in Paris, France. I now bi-locate between Portland and Oceanside, on the Oregon coast, where my partner Simeon Dreyfuss, a writer and teacher, lives.”

To learn more about Jenny, visit her bio on the college website.

This article first appeared on the College of Health’s Synergies website.

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