Human culture and other mid-life passions


By Rebecca Bell



Webster's Dictionary defines anthropology as (1) the study of humankind, in particular; (2) the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development. For Dr. Paula Marshall-Gray, anthropology was a passion she discovered in mid-life. However, once she took her first cultural anthropology class as an adult learner returning to school some 20+ years after graduating from Kermit High School, she was hooked!


A West Texas native, Marshall-Gray is proud of her Permian Basin heritage: "My grandfather moved here from West Virginia in the 1930s because of the oil industry, and my family has been here ever since." In fact, Dr. Marshall-Gray wrote her doctoral dissertation on oilfield worker culture. She interviewed former oilfield workers who lived in Texon, a small unincorporated town in Regan County where oil was discovered in the Permian Basin. "I had a great time interviewing those pioneers!" exclaims Marshall-Gray.


Today, Marshall-Gray is associate professor of history and anthropology at Midland College (MC) and also serves as co-director of the MC Honors Program. Her calm self-assured demeanor and her reputation as one of MC's most beloved and dedicated teachers, leads one to assume that Dr. Marshall-Gray has been teaching for many years; however, for almost 30 years, she enjoyed a career in the music industry and as an interior designer.


She explains, "I graduated from Kermit High School in 1968 and took some college courses, but then I got married. My husband and I owned some music stores in the Permian Basin. Running a business and raising my son consumed most of my time, so I never finished college as a young adult."


Eventually, Marshall-Gray moved to Austin and started taking classes in interior design. "At that time, Austin was really booming," she states. "So, I was hired as an interior designer after only taking a few courses, and once again my career took precedence over higher education."


Marshall-Gray enjoyed her interior design career, mostly doing commercial work for hospitals and doctors' offices in the Austin area. In 1985 she moved to Lubbock, where she worked for Studio West as a commercial interior designer. She laughs and says, "I was a cubicle expert!"


While in Lubbock, at the age of 42, Marshall-Gray decided to once again go back to school. She took a cultural anthropology course as a humanities elective toward her baccalaureate degree and loved it! In the mid 1990s she graduate from Texas Tech University (TTU) with a Bachelor's degree in general studies and then immediately started work on a Master's degree in anthropology. Once she obtained the graduate degree, there was no stopping her, and she went right on the obtain her Ph.D. in history. In approximately 10 years' time, Marshall-Gray had received three degrees from TTU–not as a young carefree adult, rather as a middle-aged woman with a full-time job and a grown son!


During the time she was working on her graduate degrees, Marshall-Gray used her anthropological skills and worked as an ethnographer for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. She also taught cultural anthropology at TTU while working toward her doctoral degree.


Marshall-Gray's eyes light up as she talks about her love of anthropology: "I especially enjoy Native American culture. Even though I'm 1/8 Cherokee, my field of expertise is in the Texas Apaches. Many people don't realize that in addition to being in New Mexico, the Mescalero Apaches were also in Texas until they were forced to leave and were sent to the Mescalero reservation near Ruidoso, New Mexico."


Her favorite hobbies incluide antiquing and collecting Native American Kachina dolls. "Most of my collection comes from the Navajo and Hopi tribes," explains Marshall-Gray. Many of the Kachinas are displayed in her MC office, and she enjoys sharing the history of the dolls and the Native American culture with her students.


Marshall-Gray was hired at MC in January 2007. At the time, the college was attempting to revive its anthropology program, and Marshall-Gray fit the bill. Not only could she provide instruction in anthropology, but she also could fill the much-needed slot of an additional history teacher. Today, she teaches five sections of history, two sections of anthropology and is MC's archaeology instructor. Her teaching load is not just limited to the fall and spring semesters. She also teaches during the Winter and Spring Interim semesters as well as both summer sessions. "I love teaching!" she says.


However, Marshall-Gray's MC assignments aren't just confined to teaching. She co-directs MC's Honors Program, in which she assumes responsibilities of reviewing student applications, coordinating honors projects with other instructors and planning and leading an Honors Program field trip each spring. Marshall-Gray also coordinates field trips for her archaeology students. Her favorite archaeological field trip is to Paint Rock, Texas. She says, "The ranchers in that area are great when we visit. They give presentations to the students and are so gracious."


Marshall-Gray's love of Texas, especially West Texas, is not only apparent in her teaching, but also shows up in her personal life. She enjoys xeriscape gardening, and her yard is filled with native Permian Basin plants. Another of her passions is rescuing pets. She currently shares her home with three cats and four dogs–all of which are rescue pets. Marshall-Gray states, "My favorite breed of dog is poodle. (One of her tow current poodles is 20-years-old.) They are so smart! However, I also have a Pomeranian and a Heinz 57–I love them all!"


So, while the homeless pets of West Texas are thankful for Dr. Paula Marshall-Gray, Midland College is also thankful that she has discovered her passion for teaching during the second half of her life. During her short time at MC, she has shared her enthusiasm for anthropology with many of MC students–some of who have gone on to major in the field.


With that gleam in her eyes, Marshall-Gray states, "Anthropology can lead to many careers–marketing, ethnography, linguistics, archaeology and forensics are just a few. We study human culture–both past and present. Every career needs to understand human culture!"