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Shannan Palma: Confronting myths, creating change

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 24, 2012

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Shannan Palma, who graduated in May with a PhD in Women's, Gender and Sexuality studies, serves as program coordinator at Emory's Center for Women. Emory Photo/Video.

Shannan Palma arrived at Emory to begin a doctoral program in 2004 fully expecting to become a professor.

Instead, she graduated this May — with an award-winning dissertation on women and mythology — only to discover true happiness in higher education administrative work.

Along the way, her journey has been sprinkled with the unexpected. She's spent time as a film studies student, make-up artist, amateur carpenter, and career coach for creative and entrepreneurial women.

Today, she serves as Program Coordinator at Emory's Center for Women, handling strategic communications, programming and financial matters, coordinating social outreach and publicity for the nonprofit resource, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on campus this year.

A creative flair and unconventional spirit feed all that she does, from embracing a personal challenge to "try three new things" every month to a recent decision to sell her car and experience life afoot.

She talks with Emory Report about carving her own path and the importance of living a deliberate life:

You came to Emory with a background in English and film. What drew you into Women's, Gender and Sexuality studies?

Though I'd had a focus on women, I'd never had a women's studies class, so there was a huge culture shock there. I grew up fundamentalist Southern Baptist — you know, the idea that women shouldn't teach men, things like that. When I was looking at programs I wanted to focus on gender, and a lot of the questions I had were developed within one very strong ideology. So in part, it was an investment in women's equality and knowing there were still strong cultural spaces where women were being told they couldn't do things just because they were women. And partially, it was to learn what those things were that I could do that I didn't know about. It was a way of rounding out my world view, paradigm shifting — a total radical departure from anything I had ever experienced before. I loved it.

Your dissertation focused on the way people use myths to simplify complex experiences of identity and desire. Where did that come from?

At one point in my life, I was a make-up artist working with clients who would share these random fairytale references: "I couldn't wait around for Prince Charming…" — that would be a woman getting a makeover for an interview — or "I had to kiss a lot of frogs…" — that would be a bride.

It wasn't bitterness, it wasn't even resignation, it was positioning themselves around these expectations about what women should want or expect, and they were doing it outside the language of feminism. They were saying just a phrase from a story, and that would communicate an entire set of expectations. I was so curious — I loved fairy tales and had read [the original, dark fairy tales]. But these women didn't know the real stories … they were referencing the Disney versions. I ended up looking at fairy tales as myth in popular culture, analyzing the ways in which these stories were getting invoked.

Is there a connection between your own personal/spiritual/cultural journey and an interest in looking at myth?

[Laughs] In general with anyone getting a PhD, you are obsessed with something. And it's generally something that reflects a core question about your own life, a preoccupation. Yes, my central question was why and how we get invested in stories, ideas and symbols that are not in our own best interest. It's a question that I look at in my creative writing, it's a question that I deal with when I do one-on-one career coaching with people, and became a central question at the core of my dissertation work.

Outside of work at Emory, you're a career coach for creative and entrepreneurial women. How did you decide to pursue that?

One of the things I discovered as I was going through graduate school — one of the things that made me shift from academic to administration — was discovering that what I really loved was encouraging and supporting and creating. I enjoy being able to work with people in a way that's encouraging them to achieve sustainable success.

It also came back to that central question: How do we get invested in things that aren't always in our best interest? Career can be a huge place where that happens — ideas about what we want our titles to be, our salary grade to be, only to discover we're miserable in every other aspect of our lives. I'm also a total planner, and enjoy doing that for other people, too.

You've adopted a personal philosophy of challenging yourself to try three new experiences each month. Where did that come from?

I was going through a very difficult time; my dad had died and my grandmother became sick and passed away. A friend gave me a book — "The Places that Scare You," by Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun — that talks about how when you go into old patterns, a habit that you know doesn't work or negative thinking, you could choose to stop, take a breath, and do something different. That resonated with me.

I decided to start doing three new things each month. Sometimes it was as simple as going to a concert or taking up knitting or going to a Rock n' Roll Monster Bash at the drive-in. Then other times, it was taking a new swing dance workshop, learning to do something new or different that I hadn't done before, or doing something new at work.

You decided to give up your car this year. What's been the biggest adjustment to a car-free lifestyle?

Grocery shopping becomes a real challenge! Now, I have a friend who calls me before she goes to the farmer's market and will drop off fresh vegetables, which is really nice. But shopping for bulk items — laundry soap or cat litter — or trips to the vet can be tricky. There are things I choose not to do, which has had an interesting effect on my budget and my life. So I don't go to Target and wander around and buy things I don't need. The great American pastime of shopping out of boredom? Gone. I don't miss it.