October: Meet Malissa Larson

Hello. My name is Malissa Larson and I am currently the Director of Disability Services at Western Oregon University.  When I first started my educational path, I thought for sure I wanted to be an American Sign Language Interpreter and completed my undergraduate degree with that in mind.  I was married to my amazing husband in June 1996, completed my undergraduate degree in 1997 and we had our one and only awesome son June of 1998.  I was fortunate enough to be able to take a few years off to stay home with my son and returned back to the work force in March of 2000.  It was at that point that I started to realize that I wanted to be more involved in people’s lives.  It was in Fall of 2003 I decided, with tremendous support and encouragement from my husband, that I would seek my graduate degree. Since I completed my graduate degree in June of 2005 I have been incredibly fortunate to have a variety of experiences working with adults with disabilities through the state and ended up at Western, where I found my professional ‘home’. 

 On the personal side, I have become a little bit of a health addict, thanks to the support of my husband.  Combined, my husband and I have lost 95 pounds.  I now exercise on a regular basis, have learned to love running (who would have thought that would happen) and almost two years ago we began to live a plant based-vegan diet. Although I have to admit, at times I call myself a Chegan (a vegan who sometimes cheats) I still focus on the health food I have in my diet. I have experienced an incredible change in my health, concentration, energy and overall happiness as well as change the trajectory of my overall health by adapting a healthy, not just healthier, life style. 

 Lastly, I am a proud mom to an amazing Tennis star, if I do say so myself.  He is a junior in high school this year, has his first paying job as a swim instructor for little kiddos, has his drivers license (watch out world) and a great positive perspective on life.  His goal is to play tennis at a Division I university in just two short years. So that is my personal bio in a nutshell…now on to the professional journey. 

As I mentioned, I am currently the Director of the Office of Disability Services at Western Oregon University.  I have the great pleasure to be working at my alma mater, as I attended Western Oregon University (then named Western Oregon State College) for my undergraduate degree as well as my master's degree. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in American Sign Language/English Interpretation in 1997. My family then moved out of state for a few years and I returned to WOU in 2000 as the Accommodations Coordinator & Staff Interpreter. In the Fall of 2003, I was given the opportunity to start my master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling with an emphasis in Deafness, graduating in June 2005. Before returning to Western, I worked for a brief time as a mental health counselor for Deaf and Hard of Hearing adults and a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. I started as the Director of Disability Services in January 2008.  It is really interesting to reflect on what it means to work in Student Affairs in higher education.  Both my husband and I work in Student Affairs, he is at Oregon State University, while I am at WOU.  Our dinner table discussions are at times very similar in our experiences working in Student Affairs in higher education, while other times they are quite different, as one can imagine.  WOU serves just over 6,000 students, which focuses specifically on first generation college students, low income and underrepresented students, including students with disabilities. While Oregon State University serves a dynamically different population to say the least.   

Since becoming the Director of Disability Services at WOU, I have truly experienced the highs and lows of what it means to be an advocate, service provider and an administrator in higher education.  Each day in my position I am given the opportunity to be flexible, creative, accountable, and in the end a support person for the team I get to work with and the students we serve.  I am fortunate to work with an amazing team.  In the Office of Disability Services at Western Oregon University, there are 7 staff members to serve over 360 students with a variety of disabilities.  It would be impossible to serve such a dynamic population without an amazing team. 

Being given the opportunity to work with a variety of individuals with disabilities, in a variety of settings, has been incredible.  I have learned to slow down and listen to each individual to work with each student to get his or her individual needs met. I learned a long time ago, that it is not the individual with the disability that has a barrier to higher education. Often times it is the barriers the institution of higher education has put into place, which substantially impacts individual students with disabilities ability to access higher education. It is our role as professionals in the field to ask our selves on a regular basis, what can I do to make the program or service we are providing to be as inclusive and accessible as possible. 

I am not sure exactly what I see next in my professional journey, I do know that professionally I would like to become as versed as possible in a variety of disabilities and learn how to best provide services for each person in the post-secondary education environment. I would like to establish an inclusive and accessible place of higher education with as much Universal Design philosophy involved as possible. In addition, I would love to be a trainer or speaker to focus the topic of Diversity and Social Justice to include the voice of those with disabilities. 

1-2 pieces of advice to share with other women along their journey

When I considered this question, I really didn’t know where to start. I don’t think my advice is specific to women, I think it applies to all regardless of their gender identity.  That being said below you will find my two biggest pieces of advice for all: 

Enjoy what you do! Of course there will be good days and bad days but when you look at what you do as a whole, ask your self…do you truly enjoy it? Do you find joy in it more often than not? If so, keep it up! Keep finding new ways to grow and find new avenues for personal and professional growth. In addition, laugh often, makes even the tough times a little easier. 

MAKE CONNECTIONS! I spend a fare amount of time making sure that I establish and nurture connections not only on campus, but off campus as well. I encourage you to reach out on campus, reach out and personally connect with as many people as possible across disciplines, departments and divisions. Not only do I encourage people to make connections, I want people to nourish relationships and connections in a genuine way.  The benefits of genuine relationships are endless, but some examples would be cross collaboration opportunities that benefit the students we serve.  Diversity in perspective leads to a diverse solutions, many times I have gone into a meeting thinking I know the best answer or solution to a problem only to have my idea shifted or changed completely by a different lens from someone in the Physical Plant or the Biology department. In addition to a variety of opportunities, genuine relationships lead to a balanced work/life experience. 

Connect with Leaders

Networking with women, non-binary, and trans leaders in the state of Oregon will enhance your professional experience. We look forward to creating opportunities to meet, connect and develop together.

Engage in Professional Development

Participate in opportunities for professional growth through educational programs that are provided by our campus contact network right on your campus, in your region or at a state wide gathering. The focus is on providing you with the leadership skills and mentoring necessary to lead.

Lead Change in Higher Education

Higher education in the state of Oregon provides a dynamic environment where women, non-binary, and trans people can impact change. Whether in the community college, 4-year institution, public, or private, we want you to be a part of shaping the future of higher education by empowering and affirming your leadership abilities.