Ins, outs of professor’s sex education

Human sexuality professor Mary Summers hosted a sexuality class with had Elzebeth Knebel from Lizzys Toys for her students in the Academic Information Resource Center Nov. 3.-Claire Padgett:Claire Padgett

Human sexuality professor Mary Summers hosted a sexuality class with had Elzebeth Knebel from Lizzy’s Toys for her students in the Academic Information Resource Center Nov. 3.-Claire Padgett:Claire Padgett

Amanda Pollard

Looking through the course catalog, you’re searching for a class that won’t make you groan every time you have to wake up for it. Maybe something that fulfills a general education requirement; maybe just an elective. You stumble upon Nursing 160, human sexuality.

If you’re one of the many students who have had professor Mary Summers as a teacher, you know this very unordinary lecture most likely changed your life.

Summers attended the University of San Francisco where she completed her undergraduate work and went on to receive her doctorate at UC San Francisco.

Summers began teaching community health at Sacramento State in 1979. During this time the current human sexuality professor passed away and Summers was presented with the opportunity to take over the class.

“I didn’t understand the complexity of the issues bringing students into this class at first. Most students are in their 20’s and at their peak sexuality, making decisions about things. I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to help people sort out their values, beliefs, and goals for themselves,” Summers said.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist, Jennifer Jenkins, who was a student of Summers’ in 2001 said Summers is one of the most inspirational teachers she has ever had.

“As an instructor she has this infectious enthusiasm in front of a class. She really encourages her students to be inspired by her words and she shares her own experiences and stories which creates a space for students to share theirs,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins, who is also a friend of Summers’ daughter, said that the nurturing and caring qualities she exudes as a mother carry over into the classroom.

“She is such a great patient advocate and really cares deeply for the less fortunate. She inspired me to advance my career as a nurse and continue my education to become a masters prepared nurse. She encourages her students to go beyond what they think they can do,” Jenkins said.

In addition to being very compassionate Summers creates an environment where her students feel comfortable, which is important when dealing with sensitive subject matter.

Sophomore family and consumer science major Andrea L’Heureux feels that Summers’ teaching style is what makes her classes so intriguing.

“She is the kind of teacher students feel comfortable talking about this stuff with,” L’Heureux said. “She is the only teacher since high school that I feel like I can talk with and you almost feel like she’s your friend. People respect her because of that.”

Shikri Farah worked with Summers producing her televised classes in previous semesters and said she often sat in and participated during many classes.

“She is very approachable and knowledgeable,” Farah said. “Having those two qualities is so important in her field. It makes interaction with her so pleasant.”

Summers feels that because of the sensitivity of issues many students deal with it is important to create an environment where they are not uncomfortable.

“Students come from a variety of places, but they all have issues to work through in order to decide what kind of person they will be. It’s like preventative work and a great opportunity to give them tools,” Summers said.

However, don’t think Summers’ class relies solely on sitting around and discussing feelings and situations. The class is assigned different tasks throughout the semester that Summers hopes will give the students themselves insight not only into their futures, but their pasts as well.

“The thing that (has) amazed me the most is students say their favorite part of the class is the big paper they have to do at the end. It’s a family paper about history, values and beliefs and will hopefully provide insight and personal exploration,” Summers said. “I spend a lot of time reading those papers because you can see people struggling to do differently than their family since they were affected by previous patterns.”

Summers also has guest speakers attend the human sexuality class and chooses them very carefully. She tries to broaden students’ views on society and hopes they will be more acceptable of others. In addition to a pleasure party, the past few years Summers has had a drag queen visit the class.

“The first time he came he was in a business suit. The next time he dressed like he was going on a cruise; and this last time he came dressed very glamorously,” Summers said. “He was shy and nervous about coming to a class of straight students. The way students treated him when he came to class really touched him and helped to free him up.”

The pleasure party is the most popular class that students attend, said Summers. Pleasure party consultant Elizabeth Knebel has been visiting the class for two years and says that she truly believes in what Summers is trying to accomplish.

“It’s about empowering women; it’s just more education with a little fun added in,” Knebel said.

Summers stresses that the class is not simply about the act of sex, but sexuality. The class discusses relationships and learns how to talk about things that may, in another situation be uncomfortable.

“I set up experiences in class where students talk about neutral things and by the end of the class they are freely talking about sexual matters. It’s beyond sex, more about boundaries,” Summer said.

It is not uncommon for students to bring their partners into class and Summer said she is often able to help students figure out difficult situations. Some students have even found that romance blossoms from their experiences in the class.

Senior English major Heather Milligan took the class in the spring of 2007 and it’s where she met her current boyfriend.

“One day I didn’t feel like sitting by myself so I went over and introduced myself to him and is friends. We started sitting together and became really good friends. A few months later I ended my relationship with my boyfriend at the time and things went from there,” Milligan said.

Milligan attributes the interaction between her and current boyfriend Tony Gabrielson to the comfortable environment Summers created in the class.

“The class was so amazing; it was fun and I met so many people and learned so many new things. The environment she created is how we came to interact more,” Milligan said.

Summers feels that the class is imperative to students’ development. She said she is trying to give people the relationships that are crucial to the foundation of our society.

L’Heureux said that Summers creates an understanding among students that helps them to broaden their views on many different types of sexuality.

“I feel like I understand where others are coming from more so because I understand the differences between me and other people,” L’Heureux said.

Milligan said that the class also teaches students how to better care for themselves in their sexual lives and other areas.

“She made me comfortable with my sexual personality. I learned first you have to make sure you’re pleased, and then you can please someone else,” Milligan said.

Aside from the benefits of the class, human sexuality remains one of Summers’ favorite class to teach.

“Nursing school is very serious; we have to be responsible for the people we produce and their competency and ethical values. But for me this class is much more relaxed and fun, it’s not so intense. It’s my fun class,” Summers said.

Summers is technically retired and teaches only a few classes, but still remains involved with her students.

Farah said Summers tries to educate as many people as she can about the issues in the health care system.

“She definitely enlightened me about some different health issues,” Farah said, “Nurses are so important in our society and I think she is one of the best professors we have on this campus.”

In 1992 Summers took a break from teaching, but remained at Sac State and conducted numerous research projects in areas such as children’s access to health care and policy related studies.

Summers did research until she returned to teaching in 1992. Her last study was for the California Department of Developmental Services and looked at factors of mortality in people with developmental disabilities who were living in out home care. The state eventually posted Summers’ results that showed by enhancing the quality of care, there were better outcomes.

“It was really exciting to have the results of my last research to be so huge,” Summers said.

Summers is currently teaching both human sexuality and public health at Sac State, even though she is technically retired. In addition to her many research projects and the numerous nurses she has educated she continues to help students work through issues that affect their everyday lives.

Amanda Pollard can be reached at [email protected]