Improving accessibility and completion rates are among the main priorities for the college's new president.

The path leading Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus president Chris Villa to Oregon was no walk in the park, but Villa hopes his perseverance and determination to earn his college degree serves as an example to the growing community he represents northeast of Hillsboro.STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Chris Villa, who began working at the school in September, has big plans for the college, but said he's impressed by the school's foundation.

Villa, who started at PCC Rock Creek in September, grew up in a low-income, working class family in East Los Angeles. Neither of his parents attended college — only one of his parents completed high school, Villa said. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and Villa said his parents instilled in him the importance of a good education, particularly his mother.

"As I went through the educational system in LA, what helped me tremendously was going through Catholic school," Villa told the Tribune last week. "It insulated me from a lot of the riff-raff that I grew up in. It was difficult."

Villa attended Loyola High School, a predominantly white, upper-income all-boys Jesuit college prep school. He walked about a mile to a bus stop and then rode two different buses to school each day, he said.

"I knew I was different," he said. "Not that there weren't other kids like me but I just felt like I had something in me to go beyond being in this lifestyle in which I would feel kind of trapped. You grow up in a challenging economic-social environment and you make a choice, and you are determined to make that choice, and you follow through with it."

After high school, Villa attended University of California, Irvine where he earned a bachelor's degree in social ecology. Following graduation, Villa moved to Orange County unsure of what was next for him. Seeing a job announcement to be a recruiter at Cal State University San Bernardino, Villa applied on a whim, and so began his career in education, he said.

Now, almost four decades later, Villa said he is still as excited about making a difference in students' lives. Villa, who replaces former campus president Sandra Fowler-Hill, who retired last year, said he wants young people to see that education is possible for everyone, specifically for students growing up in rural areas or in low-income families like he did.

There are two main areas Villa plans to focus on as president of the Rock Creek campus, he said: accessibility to education and successful completion rates.

Access to education rests near and dear to Villa's heart, he said. Villa said he wants the campus to prioritize reaching out to students across Washington County and even Columbia County.

"My position is to serve the whole community," Villa said. "I want to serve students in Vernonia as much as I do in Hillsboro. I have been out there and I know how limiting it is for kids up there to have access to education."

It isn't just high school graduates Villa hopes to reach, he emphasized, but anyone interested in continuing their education.

"I'm keenly interested in trying to get as many people from the communities that we serve to come to college and that's from all walks of life," Villa said. "I want to do everything possible to get as many students, or people in the community who may be interested in coming back to school, to consider applying here."

Villa has been working with local school districts, he said, to share the message that PCC is interested in having students regardless of their background or academic preparation.

"I'd like to get them to start, and then I'd like to get them to finish," he said. "My second priority is to help students complete school, whether it's a certificate, a degree, or a short-term course that will lead to employment. My interest is in two (areas): elevating our success rates with completion and increasing our access."

Villa said PCC's emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion is what initially interested him in the job.

"When a position opened up, I thought, 'This looks interesting because there is a heavy focus on diversity, equity and inclusion,'" he said. "I thought that was meaningful, because a lot of my background is working to promote that, so people can better understand each other and get along."

Working at nine different colleges in almost four decades, PCC is Villa's first in Oregon. He said he looks forward to what's ahead for the beautiful campus.

"There is a good vibe here and the reason why," he said. "People here work hard to be genuinely nice, but they don't really have to work hard. I think it's just the way they are raised and the way that they think and the way they behave. And I feed off of that."

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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