Susan Lowther to retire after 25 years at WashU

By Sara Brenes Akerman

Susan Lowther, Undergraduate Support Coordinator, plans to retire in May after 25 years at Washington University.

Ms. Lowther came to WashU in 1999 as a graduate student in English. Since 2017, she has been an essential part of The Writing Center.

If you’ve spent any time in The Writing Center over the past seven years, you might have caught a glimpse of one of Susan Lowther’s writing appointments. A student will come in, perhaps a little anxious, often concerned about whether their personal statement has that ineffable quality that will make it that much more likely they will enter medical school or law school—often a dream held since childhood. Susan will greet them and within minutes, you will see the student’s apprehension lessen. It is an almost physical transformation prompted by Susan’s reassuring tone and clear guidance. Helping students find and tell their stories is one of her favorite parts of the job. “I love the moment when I get the email saying ‘Hey, guess what? I got in!” she explains.

As Steve Pijut, Associate Director, remarks, “How many students have been relieved and inspired by hearing Susan say, enthusiastically, ‘I love that!’ in response to some part of their writing? Too many to count.”

A key part of her success when it comes to encouraging writers has been what she denominates The Theory of Cheese. “It first came up when I was talking with an applicant for med school a long time ago. She was afraid of sounding cheesy. I had heard this a lot and I just suddenly got tired of people saying that. I had an epiphany: You should embrace the cheese.”

What Susan realized in that moment is that embracing the cheese is a way for writers to allow themselves to be open. “When we say we’re afraid of sounding cheesy what we’re really saying, I think, is that we’re afraid of being vulnerable on the page. But that vulnerability is what pushes us forward,” she says.

The Theory of Cheese is just like Susan: at once lighthearted and genuinely wise, a wisdom made more affecting by the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Kate Harnish, current Graduate Support Coordinator, recalls an incident that speaks to Susan’s unique way of ushering in joy. “The first glimpse I got of Susan’s personality was while I was a grad fellow, during the episode with the chia pet. Was it a white elephant gift from the staff and grad gift exchange? The details are hazy, but I remember Susan’s insistence on its pride of place on her desk in the old library location. As it grew and wilted and lingered, it was always fun to check in with Susan about it. Her unabashed enjoyment of it was contagious—both the hilarity of its cheesiness and also some level of real affection for it. Susan always has a little funny talking point or fun seasonal decorations. These things add up.”

Another key principle she imparts on students is to share their writing. Particularly when it feels difficult to do so. “I try to help students become comfortable with the messy part of it. You don’t want to be that writer in the garret all dressed in black with your candle. That’s a miserable process. You want to show your writing to people.” It’s a lesson that didn’t come easily to her and which, as a result, is imbued with the kind of urgency we reserve for the advice we wish we could give our past selves. 

“In graduate school, I never showed my writing to anybody because I really identified with the words on the page. I had the sense that if anyone thought the words were wrong, they would think I was wrong. Or if they thought the words were stupid, then that meant I was stupid. It took me a really long time to get to the point of realizing that they’re just words on a page. I want other people to get there faster,” she emphasizes.

Susan understands The Writing Center as a place premised on being welcoming, a friendliness that she has played a key role in cultivating, both through her uniquely generous pedagogy and, often, with a batch of baked goods. “That’s one part of our job here that is so fulfilling, letting people know that this is a space for you. And we do that by helping them talk through their scholarly ideas, whether that be academic essays or personal statements or application essays,” she explains.

As Rob Patterson, The Writing Center Director, highlights, “she leaves behind a place deeply and positively affected by her in every way. Susan joined The Writing Center just as we began a period of change and growth – and along the way, hers has always been the voice keeping the needs of the individual student at the heart of our work.” 

Her path to The Writing Center began working with ESL students just outside of Tokyo, where she first discovered her affinity for teaching. “I taught ESL students as young as eight and as old as 80. I loved that sort of English language world which then translated into working on English language writing.”

She first came to WashU to pursue graduate work in English after completing an MA in studies in Fiction at the University of East Anglia, England. Throughout, she focused on medieval studies and realized, serendipitously, that her advisors at both institutions were, in fact, close friends.

Before joining The Writing Center, she served as writing programs coordinator at Cornerstone (a learning center that has since atomized into three separate offices). Alongside her role at The Writing Center, she has also served as an advisor and as a writing instructor for College Writing and for the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS), receiving the Chair’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

When asked what she will miss the most upon her departure, she points out that, “One thing that I appreciate with The Writing Center is that you get to build relationships, not just with students, but with the tutors. I am really going to miss the people, particularly my colleagues.”

Senior Tutor Roy Kasten echoes the sentiment. “We will all go on without her daily doses of humor, insight, contagious laughter, and pictures of Wellington [Susan’s beautiful dog], but we won’t be the same without her presence.”

“I’ve had a very adventurous life,” she recalls, having lived in France, England, and Japan, and traveled far and wide, “and I found myself, my place, at The Writing Center.”