Rock formations carved by millions of years of geological shift, wind and water rise like steeples from the sacred ground of the Navajo Nation. The high desert on the Colorado Plateau is brushed in ochre, red, magenta and shades of gray to white that change with the angle of the light.
Just outside Tuba City, Arizona, there are dinosaur tracks where swarms of tourists pause in anticipation or exhalation of the breathtaking Grand Canyon, 53 miles away. They come and go, but Beth Wasylow stayed.
She became a school counselor and met students whose eyes sparkled with promise and support of family and community. As in any school, however, there were others whose eyes had dulled from having seen too much. She set out to help them overcome; and, without knowing it, they did the same for her.
A staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Wasylow was in Tuba City from 1995 to 2000, a period of witness when she saw beauty of culture, as well as strength and forgiveness by young people still unhealed.
“I worked with kids who had been traumatized either physically, sexually, emotionally …who lived in an environment in which alcohol or other drugs were involved,” she says. “I also had the privilege of watching kids rebuild their lives. They learned to trust and love again. I watched them reach out and create relationships with parents who had been very damaging. They were not saying, ‘What you did to me wasn’t harmful and it didn’t hurt me and didn’t impact my life in negative ways.’ But they also would say, “I love you.’”
Like the shifting angle of light and the hue of the land, families once estranged found common ground, causing Wasylow to examine her own life.
Her relationship with her church and family changed her freshman year of college during Mass, when conviction and a feeling of rejection caused her to stand from the pew, turn and walk away. There had been discussions about HIV and AIDS resulting from what was described as the sin of homosexuality. Wasylow, a lesbian, quietly left the church of her childhood.
She hadn’t come out to her family yet, but they surely knew, she says, and surely they were disappointed in her departure from Catholicism. The church had served as the family’s nave, and while her divergence was never discussed, it was painfully present.
“That was really hard for me because I’m really a spiritual human being, so to feel that rejection was a profound part of my coming-out process. It did not sound congruent for me that people were being punished or they were in some way wrong for loving, so I don’t agree that because I love a woman, I’m not welcome in heaven.”
Standing at the crossroads of church and faith, Wasylow chose faith.
“I’ve been in and out of the Catholic Church trying to find my home there but I don’t think I will ever attempt it again. I know of some people who are LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) who are very comfortable. I just haven’t found that for myself.
As she often saw in Tuba City, in time her family crossed back over the bridge that had separated them. They found acceptance and forgiveness, unity through a shared agricultural culture on a dairy farm in North Dakota.
One of 11 children, she wore clothes her mother sewed for her. They were poor but never ashamed. They did without many things but there was always food on the table; and, for Wasylow, there was a determination to become the first member of her family to receive a baccalaureate degree.
It was a logical choice, she says, as she knew from an early age she wanted to be involved in education. When teaching seemed not enough, she pursued psychology and earned a Ph.D. in 2004 at Northern Arizona University. Since 2007, she has worked at CAPS.
The university experience is filled with triggers causing stress that can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Fear of failure, personal relationships gone array, isolation and hopelessness can easily erupt in the campus environment.
Students sometimes are hesitant to reach out for help. Others bury their problems, which has never been easier to do as life becomes measured in pixels and absorbed by social networks.
“I see technology like Facebook to be one of the escape tools fairly frequently,” she says. “Students tell me, ‘I can’t get off the web. It starts to take over people’s lives. They will tell me, ‘I don’t have friends that I hang out with face-to-face.’ Everything’s on the Internet.”
Counseling, a tool for personal development is a process requiring vulnerability. An aspect often involves reviewing our cultural lens and those we interact with through others. CAP’s goal is to explore with students what is interfering with their personal and academic success. Living a balanced flourishing life is worthwhile and effortful. Success not only helps individuals become who they want to become, it also benefits communities in dire need of contribution and vision.
“We’re a community helping these aspiring professionals grow and develop to be the next generation that’s going to be advancing and sustaining our communities, our cultures, our environments. If we see each other in that sense I think there’s nothing we can’t do.”
In addition to counseling, Wasylow does outreach work, including speaking to groups and classes as well as hosting a casual gathering she calls “Bites with Beth” at the PRIDE Center.
“We sit around a kitchen and talk about what it’s like to LGBTQ, what are some of the developmental stages a person goes through in that process. What’s our journey here in Corvallis or at OSU.”
At the same time, Wasylow continues her own journey, one of faith, joy, love; and, at the end of the day, renewal. She is grounded, she says, by her garden, the cycle of planting, growth, bounty and, ultimately death---the way of all living things. But from winter, she knows that spring will come again.
Her life is made full by her partner, Karen Zimmermann, OSU, communications support specialist for the school’s Extension Service. She rides her scooter to work and is welcomed home by a dog named Rosie. They are reminders of the goodness in life.
“I believe in the good of human beings, that all human beings are born good and that our differences are delightful. We’re not all the same. I think my strength comes from the Earth, my spirituality, my partner and my family.”
CAPS is funded by student fees, part of which is allocated for health and counseling. Any student who pays those fees is eligible for services. There is no co-pay.
500 Snell Hall
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki