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A voice found: the amazing story of Paula Usrey

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Communications associate professor Paula Usrey is someone who struggled for many years without a voice. She explains her life as we would never know her, telling of the journey from a frightened, deviant person to an associate professor of Speech and Communications.

“I grew up scared speechless because of circumstances in my life and my environment. I often was afraid to wake up in the morning and face whatever might come.”

Usrey, an advocate for others voices, feels some students may feel less respected that others in classroom settings. Of course this could mean they believe other students do not respect them or they don’t feel heard when they are speaking, etc. Instead of living in fear like her, she wants to help others find their voices.

“Eventually I became fearful of speaking up and didn’t talk much at all. Because of this, others told me who I was and what I thought.” Those days are gone. Now she has a voice to tell us her story.

Although Usrey identifies herself as an introvert, she sees herself as an advocate for human rights issues, education and for communication. Sometimes she dresses as Susan B. Anthony for her speech classes each term. She also represents Ms. Anthony in the community for a local chapter of the American Association of University Women, the American Association of Women in Community College at a Portland conference, and for the faculty lecture series.

Most people would never know that Usrey was someone who formerly lived life in fear of talking. She has so much to say and is eager to tell her story.

Her journey from being frightened to speak to becoming a professor of communications begins with an op-ed she submitted when she was 17 to the Gresham Outlook newspaper.

Usrey at the time worked in a nursing home as a nurse’s aide. She felt what she saw taking place in the home was really wrong, almost unbelievable. Wanting to advocate for others, she took to a pen and paper and began to speak, speak as Usrey, not the person who had no voice and was told what to think.

That article was a steppingstone in her journey. Although she was beginning to find her own voice, she was still deathly afraid to speak. After writing her article about the unspeakable things taking place in nursing homes, a reporter from the Oregonian suggested she testify in Salem regarding the nursing home issues. When it came time for her chance to speak on the subject, she froze. Usrey wanted to advocate for change but couldn’t because of her crippling inability to speak.

“I am an introvert…that doesn’t mean I’m shy” -Paula Usrey

 

For a large portion of her life, Usrey struggled day to day with simple tasks many of us perform with ease. At this point – even though she was finding her own voice – she would freak out when having to call a doctor to schedule an appointment for her children. She would literally have to plan out what she was going to say and practice saying it before actually talking to others.

She knew that she had to face her fear of speaking and communicating to be able to advocate for her own children. That’s when she tried public speaking to confront her fear.

A friend suggested she go to a Toastmasters meeting as a way of breaking out of her shell and confronting her issues with speaking. Early on, her friend went with her for security, not to protect Usrey from others, but to hold her hand and comfort her. Usrey recalled one of her early speeches in front of the crowd was something about “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”

At this time in her life, Usrey began her pursuit of higher education even though she had sworn she would never go back to school because she hated teachers. She enrolled in classes at Mount Hood Community College, eventually transferring to Portland State University where she received a bachelor’s degree in English.

After working for a spell in the insurance industry, she continued her education in graduate school where she studied organizational communication. By now, Usrey was able to speak, and because of that, she was offered a teaching assistantship.

Later, Usrey continued on toward a doctorate degree in educational leadership. Her assistantships paid for all of her higher education; however, she failed to finish her dissertation for her doctorate due to going through a divorce. In hindsight, “that was best to put the divorce over finishing the dissertation,” Usrey says.

Other than teaching, Usrey has worked in several different industries. She was employed as a communication researcher for the federal government. Other occupations range from being a foundation director, a regional educational director and a grant writer. She also was employed as a senior marketing consultant. But, her true passion is teaching communication and working with students.

In 2004, Usrey began teaching full-time at UCC after doing some part-time teaching and holding down other jobs at the same time. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than work with students and helping to support their growth as communicators and as advocates for things that are important to them.” Usrey says.

Currently, besides teaching, Usrey is on the Got Respect committee. The Got Respect committee hosts focus groups to aid research about respect and inclusion at Umpqua Community College. The goal is to research students who have felt disrespected or marginalized because of who they are or who have found others treat them in special ways because of their individual status. On UCC’s website it states, “The goal is to help UCC become a community where everyone has a place.” This is something Usrey is very passionate about and wants to continue her research into why some people may be more or less respected in the classroom. To do so, she is planning a sabbatical fall term to put more research into the topic.

While on sabbatical, Usrey would like to gain more insight as to why some students feel less respected than others in classroom settings. “Based on the literature I have been examining, nonverbal aspects of communication could be a factor,” Usrey explains. “I want to explore this by coding some nonverbal behaviors associated with influence/power and lack of power/influence and then making some classroom observations, followed by a couple of focus groups if possible. I want to use my findings to help students in my classes.” Usrey believes there are mitigating factors that could apply, but to know for sure, she will be spending the fall doing more research.

Any rumors aside, Usrey will be returning for winter term to continue teaching. Usrey wants to spend more time with some of her other passions. “I also enjoy life-coaching and may start developing that area more” she states. She also wants to want to continue to teach and learn more about her field.

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Paula recharges and reflects; Introverts often need time out to “rest and digest.” Research shows when introverts crawl into their shell it helps them feel calm and focused.
Photo provided by Paula Usrey