From Boots to Books

Stepping into Susan Nieman’s office, the first thing you notice is superhero memorabilia. Posters, notes and awards from different organizations hang from the walls. Many of the items are gifts from former students as a way of showing their appreciation for a professor who has impacted their lives.

Nieman, a former Clark College student, is now a captain in the U.S. Army and a nursing professor at Clark. She started teaching in 2005. Last quarter the Board of Trustees granted her tenure, cementing her future with the college.

However, the road to tenure was not an easy one.

Before joining the military and becoming a nurse, Nieman was on a mountaineering trip to Nepal. “That was the first time I saw dead or dying people, and we had a nurse in our group that was just amazing,” she said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

At age 31, Nieman was working three jobs and attending Clark full time, when a major in the Army approached her. She completed her nursing degree and soon after she left for Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. In 2005, she returned to Clark to become a professor, and she started her tenure track in 2009.

During her tenure track Nieman was deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Once in 2009 and again in 2011.

“I got a phone call on a Thursday, while I was teaching students,” said Nieman, speaking about her first deployment. “I turned in my keys on Friday, and I was on a plane Saturday to Fort Hood.”

IMG_0587Nieman, who has a background in mental health nursing, was asked to support soldiers who were involved in the Fort Hood, Texas shooting that occurred on Nov. 5, 2009. “When I initially got there, people were still in shock,” she said. “I was sleeping in barracks with people who were present at the shooting.”

When asked to accompany the unit to Afghanistan, Nieman did not hesitate. “I had a very abrupt turnaround from teaching mental health nursing to applying it in the field.”

When Nieman returned, she stepped right into teaching. Although, it was not long before she was activated again to deploy with a Combat Stress Control unit.

“I was blessed in that my tenure committee was very supportive,” Nieman said. “I ended up teaching in a different year and different content matter each time I came back.”

Nieman said that the deployments have affected her teaching style because she takes things to heart more than she did before. “I know first hand what it’s like to be that first person on the scene,” Nieman said. “Now that I teach foundations to first quarter students, I can impact my students profoundly because I’ve been there.”

Nieman said that if she hadn’t served in a combat zone, she would not have the intensity and drive that she does.

Yelena Zalyasko, a former student, agrees with that assessment. “She has a teaching style that makes you want to listen to her. She expects a lot of you as a student.”

Student Amy Abero said that Nieman pushes everyone in her class to participate. While it was nerve-wracking at first, Abero said that it helped her come out of her shell.

“I genuinely love my students; I tell them that.” Nieman said. “If they do something that makes me proud of them, I will tell them that directly.”

“I ask my students to not remain in a world where they have blinders on, especially as nurses.” Nieman said. “I want them to see the bigger picture, to see the person for who they are, not just the disease.”

Nieman uses a slideshow of a mass casualty situation to teach students how to assess and look deeper into a situation. “I want my students to see the person, not just the aftereffect of an improvised explosive device, for example.”

Last quarter, after Nieman was tenured, former and current students came together to throw her a surprise party. “It was incredibly emotional,” said Nieman. Former students, some from five years ago, spoke about the impact that she had on their life.

Although Nieman has enjoyed both her military and civilian careers, she has faced major challenges.

Serving during the time of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, life was hard for her because of her sexual orientation. She said that she felt like she had to hide a part of who she was, and she didn’t like not being able to share with others. “I’m a very open person,” she said. Now that the policy is repealed, she says that things have improved greatly. “I’m Christian, I’ve served, and I’ve done a lot of amazing things in my life,” Nieman said. “And now, come July, I’ll be dining out with my fiance.”

In the end, Nieman is happy where she is. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I’ve always wanted to be a nurse. Clark College is a perfect fit for me.”

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