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Alumni Spotlight // Education

AN EDUCATOR FOR EQUALITY

Educator, Dialogue Facilitator, Researcher and Editor Cheri Gurse ’77, MA ‘90
Dr. Cheri Gurse `77, MA `90 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Cheri Gurse)
Social activist and educator Dr. Cheri Gurse `77, MA `90 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Cheri Gurse)

UC Santa Barbara’s education and collaborative environment helps shape leaders -- those individuals who challenge and question the world around them, and who work toward creating better futures for all. Diversity crusader and educator Cheri Gurse `77, MA `90 credits her student experiences at UCSB with creating the seed of her activism and her long career as a champion for equal rights, access and inclusion.

Gurse transferred from UCLA to UCSB in her senior year, drawn to our University’s diverse linguistics program. After receiving her bachelor’s degree at UCSB, Gurse served as the coordinator of the UCSB Women’s Center and the Police Department’s Rape Prevention Education Program. She went on to join Fielding University as the director of alumni relations, and taught first-year and transfer students as an adjunct professor at the American Jewish University. While working on her doctorate in human development at Fielding, Gurse started her own consulting firm focusing on educating families, organizations and schools about diversity, justice and inclusion.

In this Alumni Q&A, Gurse shares what experiences at UCSB helped shape her as an educator and activist for equality -- and the hope she holds for the future of her alma mater, as we look to 2017 and beyond.

Dr. Cheri Gurse `77, MA `90 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Cheri Gurse)

What fascinated you as a young person in high school?

I was in high school from 1968 to 1971 in Los Angeles. What fascinated me in high school was watching the teachers—how they related with us, how they taught their subject, what they did when they got mad at a student (my French teacher and my driving instructor), and conversely, how they showed enthusiasm for students who worked hard. I was also busy trying to figure out relationships, friendships and cliques, all of which were abundantly evident in school hallways between classes: who liked whom? Who was in, who was out? Who should we stay away from? Reflecting now, it’s sad to remember how divided we were by class and race. One of my favorite memories is discovering my talent for tie­dyed art. My art pieces were so lovely that my art teacher wanted to keep them!

What drew you to study at UC Santa Barbara? What made you decide on your major?

I chose my undergraduate major, linguistics, while enrolled at UCLA. In those days, many students, sadly, didn’t receive much guidance from the university about the many paths open to us, in front of us. I chose “for the wrong reasons,” so that when I transferred to UCSB in my senior year it was partly motivated by finally having an authentic conversation with a professor, Dr. Charles Li (who eventually became Dean of the Grad Division).

I chose UCSB primarily because my parents were comfortable with the decision (as opposed to going further away), and I especially liked the linguistics course I would be able to take in the fall quarter of September 1975 with a real native speaker of another language—fascinating, I thought! Wonderfully, the language we studied was Farsi, and the speaker was an Arab man who became a good friend. This experience became quite life changing for me as a Jew, because up until then, I’m sad to say I’d never heard anything good about Arabs...which was so upsetting to me without really knowing why. I didn’t know anything, though, about the Middle East at that time. Eventually, this would change, as I made it a priority to study and learn from diverse perspectives. One other reason I chose UCSB—the small size of classes! At UCLA, I was overwhelmed by how big everything was; beautiful, small UCSB—the campus (9000 students) and the Linguistics Program—enticed me.

Describe what it was like during your student days at UCSB.

My undergraduate days at UCSB and my graduate time (a decade later) were like night and day. As a transfer student for my senior year, living in Goleta and then in Isla Vista, I felt disconnected from anything “campus” except for the friends I made in those small linguistics classes, and one large psych class. I enjoyed those small classes because students and faculty solved puzzles together; we were comrades in discovery. Most challenging for me at that time was, frankly, learning how to grow up, “be academic,” without any guidance that I can recall. There were two courses, however, that turned me on to material I could finally, really “get”—the first UCSB course about women, in sociology, taught by Sarah Fenstermaker Berk (as she was known then), and Dick Flacks’ course on radicalisms in the U.S. This was scholarship that was meaningful -- that made a difference to “real people” -- to me.

What motivated you to work at UCSB? What were some highlights from your role at the Women's Center?

To be honest, my choice to work at UCSB was an economic and romantic decision—I’d graduated winter quarter 1977 and wanted to stay here because of a relationship! I found two terrific positions, as a library “page” (i.e., shelving books) and as a “do anything that’s needed” person at the Women’s Center. Fortunately, both of these environments (plus those two sociology courses in my final quarter) helped me grow immensely into becoming a passionate community activist, which continues even now.

In 1979 I became the coordinator of the Women’s Center and Police Department’s Rape Prevention Education Program. All the UC campuses established an RPEP at that time—these programs were the first ever to address sexual assault in a university environment. I stayed at the WC until 1994 -- my experiences, lessons, and opportunities were simultaneously enriching, exhilarating, exhausting, deepening.

A few of the many highlights I treasure: being present for students at the WC when disorienting events occurred in their lives such as the Loma Alta earthquake, Magic Johnson’s announcement about being infected with AIDS, and the start of the war in Iraq; the impact of RPEP peers in res halls, sororities and fraternities, race/ethnic/cultural affinity groups, and at­large gatherings like annual Take Back the Night rallies and marches; and broad community appreciation for consciousness­raising strategies such as “What Part of “No” Don’t You Understand?” flyers and (at the time) ground­ breaking articles we wrote for the Daily Nexus about the effect of racism on rape awareness, and acquaintance rape.

If you had unlimited budget, what would you choose to improve/create at UCSB?

It’s my wish that the beauty of the lagoon and the ocean where UCSB is located remains clean and clear, and free to all.

Describe a typical work day for you.

In 2013, after becoming a Ph.D. in human development at Fielding Graduate University, I launched myself into independent consulting. Now my work days include: daily check­ins with online students I teach in interdisciplinary social sciences (Argosy University); facilitating sessions, gatherings, and meetings for universities and non­profits; networking in person, online and phone with people who do exciting work in diversity, justice, and leadership to create offerings together; preparation for upcoming presentations, workshops, and development sessions I will lead; and editing academic papers and dissertations.

Prior to this, I worked “for” the university, doing what I loved—community building, educating—and receiving a monthly paycheck. Now it’s different: I create the opportunities, salary, schedule and collegial environment, which means that I’m still learning and growing! The skills and interests I’ve leaned on to get me here include my abiding interest in other people, my curiosity for inquiry, my strength at welcoming and inclusion, listening and hearing well, and collaborating with others. It helps to be an avid reader and to cultivate an intersectional perspective on people, ideas, and solutions.

What inspires you? What keeps you balanced?

As a lifelong learner, scholar and practitioner, I’m inspired by stories that people share...by anything that makes it possible for everyone to be a storyteller -- by literature, novels, art, music, singing, truth­telling in all forms. Also, it’s important to me to laugh and enjoy something every day! And I’m inspired by the amazing resilience of others. There are immense challenges all around us, politically, personally, economically and in other ways. One thing that keeps me inspired, I’d say, is by knowing what I don’t know, and knowing (for the most part) how to learn something that will help maintain and nurture what’s amazing.

What makes you proud to be a Gaucho TODAY?

I’m proud to be a Gaucho today because of the university’s passionate commitment to students’ lives! Students “come first” at UCSB, and this commitment is held throughout the university. Students are welcomed, included, and developed by staff and faculty who are knowledgeable, creative, and most of all, responsive to what students need to grow and thrive. Of course I’m proud of the extremely high, intellectual capacity and leadership present at UCSB, too. But I’m extra proud (if there’s such a thing) of how individuals are “seen” at UCSB. Everyone is expected to be here, everyone is wanted, everyone is welcomed. That is a community to write home about.

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