Before They Were Educators: Dr. Pam Harris

(Editor’s Note: The following is the ninth part of a series of articles looking at the lives of WCU faculty and staff before they were educators.)

Before becoming an Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Western Carolina University, Pam Harris graduated from Platte Valley Academy in Nebraska in 1970, a period of what she describes as a “time of unrest.”

Harris attended high school during a tumultuous period in history. She witnessed race related riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the drafts of the Vietnam War.

Amidst the history happening around her, Harris was a reporter for her school paper and editor of the yearbook. She has always had a passion for writing.

“I wanted to be a professional writer who lived on a gorgeous ranch in Wyoming with beautiful mountains to inspire me,” said Harris.

Harris was born in Topeka, Kansas, but did not count that as her only home. Harris found the question of where she grew up to be a tough one.  She moved around from Kansas to Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, Wyoming, and Nebraska as a child. Although her surroundings changed, her love for music has stayed the same.

Harris started taking piano lessons when she was 5-years-old.

“I could play the piano before I could even read,” said Harris.

At age 12, Harris began to take organ lessons. She continues to play the organ at weddings, funerals, and churches.

Harris also grew up loving the outdoors and travelling.  She developed a friendly relationship with a pen pal who lived in Holland during high school. Her pen pal invited her to vacation with him and his family in Europe.

“My parents let me go. I loved travelling in Europe and we camped in the Swiss Mountains,” said Harris.

Harris continued her love for travelling and the outdoors by camping and backpacking 50 miles up the Appalachian Mountains.

Harris pursued an English degree with a minor in Communication at Union College in Nebraska. Her parents living in Nashville, Tenn. at the time made it hard for her to be so far from home.

“I got homesick and finished at Southern College near Chattanooga,” said Harris.

After graduating from college, Harris began teaching high school English, Journalism, and Speech and followed her teachings to Florida where she stayed for four years.

After ten years of teaching high school, Harris decided to try something different. She became the editor of “Classic Chevy World” magazine in Orlando, Florida.

“This was a very creative job,” said Harris.

Harris began to make her way back to the Appalachians and closer to WCU as she moved from different newspapers with her husband. As she wrote and edited for newspapers, Harris also taught college classes on the side.

“My students asked why I wasn’t teaching college full time, and I thought this was an interesting idea,” said Harris.

Harris moved back to Tennessee and pursued her Doctorate in Mass Communication and spent 11 years teaching at the Southern Adventist University.

During her time at Southern Adventist University, Harris received a job proposal from Washington State University. Skeptical at the time, she decided to visit.

“I was happy where I was but when I visited Washington State, I fell in love and accepted the job,” said Harris.

Harris became Chair of the Communication department and created and built several new communication facilities including production facilities, wired speech rooms, and a black box theatre. However, as Harris started to get homesick for the mountains of Western Carolina, she received an email with a job opening from Dr. Farmer a Professor of Communication at WCU.

Harris landed the job at WCU in 2008 and teaches Public Relations in the Communication department. She also has a strong interest in social media and is teaching a blogging class that is offered for the first time this semester.

Besides being a professor at WCU, Harris is currently travelling to present her research on Irene Morgan, the African American woman who sat in a front of the bus 11 years before Rosa Parks. Harris has combined her research and her background with the media by researching the media’s influence on Morgan’s silenced fight for equality.

“I read an article in the Washington Post in 2000 about Irene Morgan and I asked myself, how do we all know Rosa Parks, but not Irene Morgan?” said Harris.

Harris will present her research in Seattle, Auburn University, and Idaho State University this semester. Harris will also present her research on “Twitter’s first brushes with the law” in Texas in May.

Whenever Harris isn’t using her real life experiences and education to teach WCU students, she continues to enjoy playing the organ, stitching and making quilts, and through her research in genealogy has even discovered she is related to President George Washington, and most of the Kings and Queens of England.