School of Language, Culture, and Society Director Susan Bernardin discusses her compatibility with the position, her interests, values, family and more

By Jaycee Kalama, CLA Student Writer - October 3, 2023

Susan Bernardin came to Corvallis from Oneonta, New York, in the fall of 2017, specifically for the School of Language, Culture, and Society director position at Oregon State University. Traveling 2,952 miles—a cross-country move—requires some major dedication and a whole lot of trust.

According to Bernardin, what drew her to this position were all of the possibilities—pointing out some of the SLCS fields, such as French, Queer Studies, and Archaeology, and the opportunity to nourish an intellectual community out of very distinct but interrelated programs.

“I chose OSU because this position aligned in powerful and striking ways with my own past and current lives as a student, as an interdisciplinary scholar, and as a Women and Gender Studies department chair,” Bernardin said. “I really appreciate the community of the School of Language, Culture, and Society because its core commitments and values are my own as well,” Bernardin said. “Across our different disciplines, we share commitments to advancing research and teaching grounded in social transformation, whether that is working with tribal partners on river restoration, bringing Spanish-language students into local elementary schools, or creating an Indigenous Studies minor for Ecampus, one of many majors and minors available in the School for diverse learners who are also part of our extended SLCS community.”

As a scholar of both Indigenous literatures, and Gender and the American West, she was also drawn to shaping what she saw as Oregon State’s unfulfilled land grant responsibilities to the nine federally recognized tribal nations in Oregon, as well as to the many Indigenous peoples who also call Oregon home. In Fall 2021, Bernardin oversaw the university’s first cluster hire in Indigenous Studies, as well as the creation of the School’s Indigenous Studies minor in 2022.

Bernardin received her B.A. in comparative literature with concentrations in French, German, and cultural anthropology from Princeton University, and her Ph.D. in Literature with an emphasis in Native American Studies and American Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. After receiving her doctorate, she worked in both the University of Minnesota and State University of New York (SUNY) systems before making the move to OSU.

While Bernardin technically grew up in Massachusetts, she went to grad school in Santa Cruz, Calif., and a lot of her family and friends live in that region and up and down the West Coast, so she said the move to Oregon felt more like she was coming home.

Apart from her role as the SLCS director, two things you should know about Bernardin is that she loves dogs and is extremely committed to her family.

“I'm a parent to two daughters. Grace just finished her first year at Oregon State, and I am grateful to be gaining a deeper understanding, through her, of student experiences here. My older daughter, Lucy, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, so I also have longstanding commitments to issues of disability access and justice,” Bernardin said. “I am a mother and also a dog mother. Winter is an enormous white Husky-Shepherd mix (think dire wolf in Game of Thrones) and Angel, is a sensitive soul and Pit Bull. They are both Covid-era dogs who came into our lives around the time our beloved senior dogs, Banjo and Bailey, died.”

But Bernardin doesn’t just nurture her family at home—she also cares for her family at Oregon State. Julia Rankin, a fourth-year environmental science student with a minor in social justice, knows Bernardin as her academic advisor for her social justice minor.

“She has helped me shape the minor to my passions and interests while also giving me new possibilities,” Rankin said. “The lens I have of equity and social justice to view environmental issues wouldn’t be as strong or valuable without her, which is crucial to my future goals of working in the environmental justice and equity field.”

Rankin is not the only person who noted Bernardin’s emphasis on centering social justice and equity

“I have a lot I could say about Susan,” said Melissa Cheyney, a professor of medical anthropology in the School of Language, Culture, and Society. “Something that really stands out to me about her is that she walks her talk and lives her politics. She approaches her leadership style, research, and teaching from a social justice perspective.”

According to Cheyney, Bernardin centers the most vulnerable—a tenet of reproductive justice that means putting all your effort and energies into people in your community that are made most marginalized by systems of oppression.

“She is a true ally to faculty and will absolutely stand by your side. Most people don’t think that the most important characteristic of a leader is that they are compassionate and loving. But that's what she is—compassionate, loving, and just—you respect her, and you want to work hard for her,” Cheyney said. “I can give an anecdote that really explains this in a nutshell for me.”

When Cheyney went up for a full professor promotion during the pandemic, she described Bernardin as a sort of midwife to her full professorship. At a nerve-wracking time when associate professors are being evaluated extensively—having their work, strengths and weaknesses viewed under a microscope—Cheyney said Bernardin made the entire process extremely straightforward for her. According to Cheyney, Bernardin not only looked over her CV and clarified the review process, but she also wrote a 4,000-word letter of recommendation for her promotion.

“It wasn't just, ‘yeah, promote her,’ she put her heart and soul into it,” Cheyney said. “I am so grateful that she made that process pretty positive for me—she nurtured me through that. I think she really does that with her faculty.”

But it’s not just her faculty who feel that way. According to Rankin, she can genuinely say that Bernardin has been one of the best people she has met at OSU, explaining that Bernardin is a great reminder that there are amazing mentors willing to shape the lives of others for the better.

“She will always go above and beyond for her students, it sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” Rankin said. “She truly cares about creating future scholars and graduates that are ready for the world, but also ready to question the world and make it better. She is a prime example of someone who lifts up others.”

Actually, the fact that educators in the School of Language, Culture, and Society care about their students and the families and communities that ground them, is just one of the reasons Bernardin encourages students to join the school, whether that is to declare a major or minor, or simply take a class.

“We are a school centered in justice, equity, and access, and we are a home for students of all identities. Our majors are really tools for life,” Bernardin said.

Speaking of tools for life, Rankin described her minor as just that.

“Some of my favorite classes have been for my minor, and there have been so many moments where my learning has connected, or I’ve had my eyes opened about something. I can definitely say these courses have impacted the trajectory of my life,” Rankin said. “Here your needs are seen, heard, and met with validation and help if asked for or needed. It’s been so amazing to have this supportive learning environment where you are cared for academically and personally.”