Cherstin Lyon is the director of Southern Oregon University’s Honors College, organizes the Democracy Project with Philosophy Department chair Prakash Chenjeri and mentors students. And she has been at SOU for just a year.
“Coming to SOU I was immediately impressed by how welcoming the campus is, and by all of the people who reached out to introduce themselves, invite me to coffee, and extend a helping hand,” Lyon said. “That made it very easy to reach out when I had questions or needed help. I’m delighted to be working at a university that works so well as a team, where there is such a strong sense of community and where students come first in everything we do.”
Lyon is new to SOU, but by no means new to academia – or to Oregon. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Oregon before earning her doctorate at the University of Arizona.
She taught history, first at Utah Valley University and then at California State University, San Bernardino, where she earned tenure. She coordinated CSUSB’s Public and Oral History program and master’s degree program in Social Science and Globalization, and co-directed the summer study abroad program in London. She also co-directed the Center for Faculty Excellence as the faculty associate for the Office of Community Engagement.
Lyon came to SOU in July 2019 as director of the Honors College, which seeks to create a community of learners prepared for a lifetime of intellectual curiosity, inquiry, scholarship, and service. Students and professors work in partnership to create a challenging and practical liberal arts education centered on critical thinking, multidisciplinary undergraduate research, inclusive diversity, civic engagement and community service. The college tackles regional issues with global implications.
“The Honors College creates a sense of community and belonging among students,” Lyon said. “The curriculum is intentionally linked to co-curricular activities and experiences that help students develop their unique talents and cultivate their leadership skills.
“There are many opportunities in the Honors College to expand learning beyond the classroom, and to create distinctive projects that will set students apart from the pack when applying for graduate school, internships or jobs.”
Lyon organizes the Honors College Democracy Project with Chenjeri, one of the original founders of the project. It typically includes an annual trip for students to hubs of democracy at home and abroad. Participants write “dispatches” about their experiences and observations during the trips, which typically include visiting community groups and representatives of various levels of local, regional, national and international governments. Their research then becomes part of an annual workshop at which students share what they’ve learned about democracy with southern Oregon high school students and other residents.
The Democracy Project was initially scheduled to explore Edinburgh, Scotland, and London during the 2020 summer break, but the trip was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Students in the program have instead focused on democracy in the Rogue Valley, with a digital symposium held for Crater High School students.
The 2021 Democracy Project will consist of a series of lectures, discussions and presentations on topics relating to democracy in America. The title for this year’s Democracy Project, “The Fragility and Strength of American Democracy,” was discussed at the opening roundtable event on Jan. 21 and at a series of events that will be open to the public via Zoom and on Jefferson Public Radio.
Future versions of the Democracy Project are expected to return to a more global perspective.
“Going back to South Africa (and) visiting Ghana would be fascinating,” Lyon said. “We also have plans to visit Sweden. I’d also like to go places that open up our understanding of democracy in the U.S., including places like American Samoa or Detroit. We are also looking into the possibility of partnering with Oregon tribes to better understand what democracy looks like from the perspective of domestic dependent nations.
“I would very much like to partner with faculty at SOU who work on community and democracy-related issues in countries around the world as a way of including more faculty in the project.”
Lyon’s favorite role as Honors College director is advising and mentoring students. One common student issue with which she has personal experience is picking a major. She studied piano performance, environmental science and policy, social control, chemistry and statistics – and was passionate about each – before narrowing her focus to history.
“I tell students all the time that choosing a major or a focused career path now does not preclude exploring other interests later,” she said. “If we are lucky, we will have decades in which to explore the things that we love. Career paths often take serendipitous turns we cannot predict, but if they remain curious and engaged, they will be prepared for a lifetime of possibilities.
“Remembering your diverse interests might inspire you to take advantage of opportunities … that might otherwise be overlooked.”
Story by Blair Selph, SOU Marketing and Communications student writer