Dr. Sharon Mitchler just stepped off a plane from Bangkok – the final stop on an in-depth Road Scholar Tour of Nepal, Tibet, China and Bhutan. The purpose of the trip? To connect with locals in each country, lending depth and insight to the study of their unique religions and cultures.
This incredible experience will benefit Mitchler’s humanities, Ethics and Cultural Values, and English classes at Centralia College. “I’ve got stacks and stacks of notes,” she said. “I refined a lot of what I know. It’s given me a whole new perspective.”
This is Mitchler’s 21st year at the College. She describes the last two decades of intellectual development with warm enthusiasm. “I’ve done a lot of different things on campus and in my professional organization; that’s why I’ve been here this long,” she said. “This is a place where, if you think you’d like to try something, they don’t say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ They say, ‘Let’s see how we can make it work.’”
This open attitude is evident throughout Mitchler’s career. In fact, the same day she returned from Bangkok, she was heading to a University of Washington research facility to spend two weeks writing intensively for several projects – one of which may affect students far beyond Centralia College’s borders.
“For the last two years, I’ve been involved in ‘teaching for transfer,’ a new approach developed at Florida State University,” she said. “There’s a whole movement – a different way to teach English 101 and other kinds of writing.”
The study encompasses eight universities from a variety of different geographic areas including rural, urban and suburban sites. The goal? To develop a curriculum that teaches students to write for the situation, rather than producing rote academic content. “They learn to take a writing situation, figure out what they need to accomplish, who they’re writing to and what structures they need to apply, and then write it,” Mitchler said. “Our students are writing in all sorts of interesting places – professional, digital, etc. I’m really excited because what we’re discovering is that this seems to work really well in multiple locations.”
Community Colleges are not usually invited to participate in these types of large scale studies. “Until you have a formal title and a different kind of training, they don’t consider you,” Mitchler said.
Mitchler decided to do something about it, earning her PhD from the University of Washington in 2015. “I did it so Centralia College students could be seen in the research,” she said. “I wanted to contribute something to the larger field. They’re not just like other students. I think they have some powerfully different qualities.”
Earning her PhD got Mitchler – and her students – into the game. “Before I even officially graduated, people were asking me to participate in things,” she said.
Centralia College stood behind her the whole way. “This place made that possible,” Mitchler said. “Dr. Walton, John Martens, Jodi Peterson, and Karen Goodwin all came to my [doctoral] defense. That’s what I love about this place. When you’re trying things, everyone’s behind you, supporting you, cheering you on and giving you a little push. It’s been pretty great.”
Mitchler already had an impressive list of degrees including her bachelor’s in English and secondary education, a master’s in English, and a master’s in humanities. “I really like school,” she said with a smile.
She ignites the same passion for learning in her students. As a result, she’s earned the Exceptional Faculty Award twice in her career.
This month, she earned her third.
“Sharon has clearly exhibited her desire to motivate students to expand their critical thinking and discourse skills in her classroom by her personal example to continue to learn and grow as an instructor,” said Centralia College Foundation Executive Director Christine Fossett. “After earning her Ph.D. in 2015, she has continue to participate in experiences that directly benefit her students in the classroom. The academic and technical contributions she continues to make to Centralia College are what made her stand out as one of our exceptional faculty.”
The award means a lot to Mitchler. “The thing that always rings true for me is that this is recognition by the campus,” she said. “The nomination is really meaningful and important … I get all mushy just thinking about it.”
The award comes with a monetary component that Mitchler intends to make the most of. “It’s a powerful recognition for me and that means you’ve got to do something important with it,” she said. “The recognition and the opportunity to have a little financial backing can bring something better to our students and community.”
Mitchler may use the funds to pay for additional cultural travel. “It enhances my humanities classes in ways that are truly intangible,” she said. “It gives them more resonance and value for those students, and encourages them to travel.”
She might also use the award to fund additional writing time. “I have about six projects in the works right now,” she said with a laugh.
The possibilities are enlivening. And no matter which academic path she pursues, Mitchler knows Centralia College will support her.
“Centralia College provides this incredible platform,” she said. “It’s a safe place for people to try, risk and discover things they didn’t know before. It goes for students and is something you can see with our faculty and staff as well. That’s the secret of this place that I find fascinating; we’ll help you get started and then cheer as you go off and do all kinds of fascinating things.”