Donn Marshall: 30 Years of Listening, One Student at a Time

Donn MarshallIt was over a potluck dinner—maybe the time he’d whipped up a quiche and his mom’s special chocolate dessert for the regular gathering of college classmates—that University of Puget Sound psychologist Donn Marshall “heard the call.”

He was young, still a student, and for the first time someone he greatly respected had questioned just who Donn was and where he fit into the world. It was the ’70s, when the women’s liberation and gay rights movements had captured the national stage. While Donn empathized strongly with those rallying cries, he says that as a straight white male, he was “clueless” about the role he could play.

Donn’s mentor Stephen Lenton, then a Virginia Commonwealth University assistant dean of students and an openly gay man, wouldn’t accept cluelessness as an excuse. “He was the first person I knew to identify that men have a role in the women’s liberation movement,” Donn says. “That if women are learning to self-advocate and to change roles, there has to be a parallel movement for men to identify our position in this changing social world.”

Stephen had organized the potluck dinners to talk reflectively about life and personal issues with young men at the university, and after many discussions, Donn discovered his calling. The topic of gender identity “became both my academic focus and my social milieu,” he says.

Now, on the cusp of his retirement as Puget Sound’s director of Counseling, Health, and Wellness Services, Donn can look back on 30 years of advocating for and counseling students with diverse cultural and social identities.   

The son of a firefighter and a teacher’s aide, Donn grew up on a Virginia beef-cattle farm, baling hay and building barns—enough, he says, to “cure me of any romanticism about farm life.” He went on to study at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, and then at The Ohio State University, before joining Puget Sound as a staff psychologist in 1987.

Asked about his biggest accomplishment, Donn, seated in one of the two battered, maroon leather chairs winging his office window, drops his ever-narrating hands and thinks. He settles on three.

For a start, he is pleased with how he and others have incorporated sexual assault prevention into student orientation. Then there is 20-plus years of LGBTQ advocacy, which saw the college recognized nationally in 2006 as “gay-friendly,” plus his part in creating an LGBTQ Leadership Scholarship. And finally, there’s his team’s extensive work on suicide prevention—a program that has become a model for campuses around the country.

In retirement, Donn intends to continue using his skills. He will teach suicide prevention classes in the School of Education, and he is on a Washington state committee for suicide prevention. Working with the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, he will help create a curriculum in glass-blowing for injured veterans and active-duty personnel. He also plays mandolin and loves to attend bluegrass and Americana music festivals with his partner of 37 years.

Donn says it has been a rewarding three decades—primarily because of the students who come to his bright, book-stuffed office, forgive his lame jokes as he tries to make them comfortable, and then sit down, cautiously open up, and talk. They share life-changing moments as they grapple with their own complex identities.

“It’s awesome,” Donn says. “What a privilege that has been for me to be able to sit with people, getting to know them in that deep way. It genuinely has felt like a privilege."


By Shirley Skeel
Published May 7, 2018
Photo by Ross Mulhausen