Professor Glenda Sehested leaves Augustana with a legacy of passion, as well as a challenge to be open and welcome discussion on campus.
Campus pastors Ann Rosendale and Paul Rhode alerted the campus of Sehested’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis and departure from her position as sociology department chair in an A-mail. Sehested later addressed all faculty and staff in a four-page letter titled “My Last Word, by Dr. Glenda Sehested.” It detailed her 38 years at Augustana, described her changing perceptions of the college and gave advice to her colleagues.
Sehested describes arriving at Augustana in 1974 with plans to gain experience and move on to an institution heavily focused on research. Once skeptical of the small, Lutheran college and teaching, she says, “What happened here is that I absolutely fell in love with teaching—with the joy of seeing the light come on in a student’s mind. … I also fell in love with Augustana.”
According to sociology instructor Susan Bunger, Sehested helped sustain an Augustana family that engages controversial issues and maintains respectful relationships.
In her letter, Sehested writes: “There is value in the clash of competing opinions and what I came to realize was that this is a place that strives (though not always successfully) to achieve that value even in our own ‘campus politics’ and still maintain genuinely supportive interpersonal relationships.”
Bunger first learned from Sehested as a non-traditional student pursuing a major in sociology. As a student she remembers being inspired by Sehested. “She awakened sociology to me and the idea that sociology could be a career.”
Now colleagues with her mentor, Bunger says despite the immediacy of her health concerns, Sehested continues to be involved with the department by occasionally returning to campus to an office full of students, eager to engage in conversation and remind them of their responsibility as perpetual students to live in service to others. “She is a living example of sociology and social justice,” Bunger says.
According to her colleagues and students, Sehested is passionate for questioning status quos (or everything), maintaining integrity and raising awareness for unresolved and under-attended issues.
Kadyn Wittman, a senior sociology major, experienced a life-changing encounter with Sehested.
“I was a history major for a brief period of time, an English major at one point, a nursing major for a week, and then I had a sociology class with Sehested.” Wittman says.
“I hated her at first because she made me work harder than any other professor at Augustana,” she says. “I realized I was becoming not only a better student, but a better person.”
She and junior Michael Vos were two of several students who requested to see the farewell letter after hearing faculty and staff received it.
“She introduced me to a lot of firsts,” Vos says. “Even if I got a good grade on something, she still had comments on ways to improve. She never stopped giving advice, and she always presented another point of view.”
Though Sehested chose to talk little about her private life (and, says Bunger, about her dedication to the larger community and society) in the classroom, Vos recalls her story about picketing in downtown Sioux Falls, being questioned by other faculty about her public behavior and responding: “Of course I want my students to see me standing for what I believe in.”
“She pushes the envelope,” Vos says. “I think some people can be turned off by that. Be open-minded; she’ll introduce you to a lot of different viewpoints. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Sehested self-asserts that she came from the ‘question authority’ generation. Her advice to the faculty who inherit Augustana: “Speak up, to stay quiet is selfish; attend cross-curricular events, you might learn something new; wrestling with moral values often and widely; respect, always; talk about the ‘elephants in the room.’”
Her last word: “The goal of such debates should not be to reach consensus but rather to literally ‘live in the tension’ … between the various rationales and moral arguments on each of the many sides of these issues. We need to not just tolerate but seek to understand the ‘others’ by conscientiously listening and responding to them.”