by Alaysha Germaine
It’s a Friday morning in Laidlaw 211. A smiling woman enters in black pants, strappy black sandals, a zebra print shirt and a knee-length black coat. Her mid-length brown hair hides her barely visible dangling silver earrings. With sunglasses still on her head and a slight shade of pink on her lips, Laura Overstreet is ready to teach her first class of the day.
Overstreet has been teaching since 1984 and for the past three years has been at Whatcom teaching psychology and sociology; concurrently since 2004 she’s taught similar classes at Western.
A Texas native, this Southern belle has a quirky but captivating teaching style and a curious list of hobbies.
This morning in General Psychology 100, before handing out a study guide, Overstreet whistles a quick tune.
“Should I quiz ya’ a little bit?” she asks with a swinging Texan accent. She begins the lesson with a discussion on cognitive development, her enthusiastic facial expressions and near constant hand movements accentuating her already convictional words.
Overstreet began attending college at the age of 17, majoring in music—namely voice—and minoring in psychology. Though varied, these topics have both continued to play incredible roles in Overstreet’s life.
As a child Overstreet’s love of music was abundant, as was her curiosity in the psychological field. In her junior year as a college student at Texas Wesleyan University, Overstreet flipped her minor and major, she then finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of North Texas.
“I was drawn to psychology,” said Overstreet. “I saw my mom struggle with constant severe depression while I was growing up.”
Overstreet spent countless hours in doctor’s offices and psychiatric hospitals with her mother.
“I noticed the lack of understanding in the medical field about psychology and a ton of ineffective treatments,” she said. Through these traumatic hospital settings, Overstreet found comfort and happiness in her music. Summers spent at her grandma’s house widened Overstreet’s musical horizons and introduced her to the guitar.
“My grandma taught me a lot about music,” she said. “We would just sit around and play.”
Overstreet began performing at school in Texas and in local areas close to home at age 11. At 14 she was performing in local clubs, and by 18 she was on the road with a duo called Harmony, living off the money she made from shows.
In three months time Overstreet and the duo traveled some 5,000 miles from Harland, Texas, to Cook, Minnesota.
“When I was on the road I spent weekends in libraries reading college magazines,” said Overstreet. “Being on the road was lonely.”
Her love of college and dwindling desire to be on the road 24/7 brought her back to school in Texas. Overstreet began teaching sociology and a marriage and family class as a graduate student at Texas Woman’s University, while simultaneously doing her practicum at the university counseling center after becoming a licensed professional counselor.
“Professionally, I continued to teach as an adjunct faculty member while I was a full-time therapist in the psychiatric ward of a general hospital,” said Overstreet.
When Overstreet was 30 years old, her mother lost the battle against depression and took her own life. This tragic loss left Overstreet unable to counsel those in a suicidal state. She left the hospital and focused all her attention on her teaching career.
“I feel that I can still have a big impact on people’s lives when they’re not in crisis,” said Overstreet. “In a classroom people can absorb more.”
Although Overstreet did not fully pursue music, it’s still one half of her life. As a professor at two colleges and a single mother of two daughters, Overstreet still makes time for her music.
Overstreet’s favorite genre to play is blues, and she recalls one of her most memorable performances being at a Fourth of July party at Zuanich Point Park, looking out at the San Juan Islands and the stars. She remembers thinking to herself on stage, “You made it.”
“I love being in the zone,” said Overstreet. “When I’m performing I’m lost in another world, and that’s my preference…I love it.”
Back in the classroom, Overstreet goes to make a note on the board when she discovers she has a bad marker.
“Shoot it!” shouts a student.
“Should I?” Overstreet responds.
“Okay, shhh, just don’t tell on me,” she giggles. She shoots the marker for the garbage and she scores! Unfortunately in the wrong bin, she chuckles as she makes her way to the waste basket to correct her shot.
Overstreet teaches with passion, she acts silly but manages to simultaneously remain graceful in her technique. She acts out and demonstrates her examples. She uses descriptive words, and as she describes in her lesson, uses assimilation to teach with examples of things that are familiar.
“My classes aren’t about making points,” said Overstreet. “It’s not about points; it’s about the students having a new perspective when they leave.”
In Overstreet’s Whatcom Psychology 200: Lifespan Psychology course, she uses a service learning program to aid in her teaching.
“The service learning is an effort to bridge the gap between learning and the real world,” Overstreet said.
The program allows students to connect with an individual outside school and use their current knowledge of psychology to aid that individual in assistance they may need that is relevant to the class.
“It’s a great program for students pursuing a career in nursing,” says Overstreet. “It teaches them how to help people outside of a hospital setting.”
When given the opportunity, students ask questions from various perspectives and Overstreet gains a more intent persona, answering as thoroughly as she can, never missing a beat. But as soon as her answer is complete, the tone in her voice returns to its former enthusiastic glory.