Mark Mitsui, the president of Portland Community College, had a big surprise when talking to his mother Tami in 2016.
Mitsui knew that his mother, now 92 and living in Seattle, had survived time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Mitsui had just moved to Portland to helm PCC in September 2016.
"Can you see Jantzen Beach?" Tami Mitsui asked her son, about the view from his new home.
It turned out she and eight relatives had been interned in a horse stall at the Portland International Livestock Exposition Center in the 1940s, in the site that is now the Portland Expo Center. The prisoners could see through the barbed wire to the Ferris wheel and roller coaster at Jantzen Beach.
During World War II, the U.S. government detained people of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were rounded up. Mitsui says his mother was one of 3,676 held at the Expo Center.
After three months, her family was transferred to a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
"After Heart Mountain, Mom was released and then went back to Wapato, and then went to college," Mitsui said. "And that's where she met my dad," who was attending college on the GI Bill.
Mitsui made a video interview with her to tell the family story. Despite fear and discrimination, they made a life for themselves by getting educated, and anyone in Portland can do that too, Mitsui said, by attending community college.
"She gave me permission to inform people about what happened during World War II, and not a lot of Nisei women did that when I was growing up," Mitsui said. "So, I just feel really fortunate that she was willing to put herself out there."
In the video, Tami Mitsui has almost perfect recall, detailing the smells and sounds of being housed like an animal, but also the daring of her brothers sneaking in and out of camp in Wyoming.
Leaving in June
Mitsui leaves PCC this summer, retiring after six years helming Oregon's largest community college. His replacement, Adrien Bennings, has her work cut out for her. Community colleges usually boom in periods of high unemployment. However, the COVID-19 recession had the opposite effect. Community colleges nationwide saw a decline during the pandemic. PCC's annual student headcount peak was in 2011-12, at 95,031. The headcount for 2019-20 was 60,398 and for 2020-21 50,566.
As he retires, Mitsui realizes how much he owes to his parents' outlook.
"I think that their emphasis on equity and education really helped formulate my interest in colleges," Mitsui said.
His dad, meanwhile, had done one semester of college before being drafted, near the end of the war.
"And now their journeys, from American concentration camps to an American college campus, really changed the trajectory of their lives and by extension, mine as well," Mitsui said. "I don't think I would have become president of PCC if they hadn't done what they did. It underscored for me the transformative power of higher ed."
On his office wall he has the quote, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
Mitsui started teaching in 1988 at Renton Technical College, in the Health Occupations division.
"I loved it," Mitsui said. "I really saw people's lives change as they engaged in their post-secondary education. I also could look at my class and I knew if the student was living in a bus or the student was living in a car, and that's when I first became aware of the dramatic and significant proportion of students who struggle with basic needs and security and education."
He left teaching for administration so he could "address this holistically, to help the whole student to be successful," taking a job in student affairs in the Seattle Community Colleges.
"What I loved about the community colleges, though, is that we're not secular humanists," Mitsui said. "We don't believe that some people are predestined for success and others for failure. We believe everybody deserves a shot, so we are open-access institutions."
Before joining PCC, Mitsui was president of North Seattle College. The Obama administration came calling, and he became deputy assistant secretary for community colleges within the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C.
Mitsui learned about leveraging students' resources. In North Seattle, the Opportunity Center was a brand-new facility with co-located social service agencies, community-based organizations and health and human services.
Students' needs can result in an alphabet soup of agency acronyms. In Seattle, Mitsui saw students who needed benefits such as Pell grants, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps), Section 8 housing, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and subsidized childcare. He learned how to help them sort through all that, so they could study.
At first, he turned down the Obama administration, but when they asked again, a mentor told him, "'Mark, they're not going to ask you three times, get over yourself.' I said, 'Go ahead, put my name in and nothing will happen.' But eight interviews later, I got hired in the Obama administration."
This was before Zoom — it was five phone interviews and three in person, plus a background check.
PCC annually serves approximately 50,000 full- and part-time students. Enrollment in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021, PCC was down 4.2% in total headcount (and 7.6% in full-time equivalent enrollment).
Mitsui said it's wonky, but there are rules that are part of federal statute for public benefits that keep students from accessing things like food stamps while they're going to school.
"For example, they require students to work so many hours a week in order to be eligible for food stamps," Mitsui said. "Well, our students already worked two jobs so they can put food on the table while they go to school."
What he learned there, he brought to PCC, which he especially liked because of the college's commitment to equity.
PCC initiated Pathways to Opportunity, a network of all 17 Oregon community colleges that would work together to find ways to integrate these benefits, so that students would be able to focus on school and graduate.
"I think the democratic qualities of higher education are directly linked to the degree of public funding," said Mitsui. "The higher the degree of public funding, the lower tuition is. But basic needs and security is still a major barrier. It's like an iceberg: Tuition is above the water because it's very visible but the bulk of the unmet financial need for higher ed for students is below the waterline. It's housing, it's child care, transportation."
He also read about the Hope Center, a Research Center at Temple University, which was doing national research on basic needs insecurity among college students.
"I saw validation of what I've been seeing since my teaching days, that an astounding percentage of respondents to their surveys indicated they are struggling with houselessness, food insecurity, or housing insecurity," Mitsui said. "Something like 60 percent experienced one or the other."
Unlike some other states, Oregon has authority to not require that students work 20 hours a week in order to be eligible for certain benefits. Oregon's Department of Human Services recognized this and in consultation with Mitsui and others, made changes.
"DHS eliminated this requirement, which was a huge breakthrough for students," he said. "That's an example of the partnership that came out of this effort."
Another statewide project is the Community College STEP Consortia, which PCC leads for Oregon's community colleges. STEP stands for SNAP Training and Employment Program. SNAP 50/50 is a reimbursement, third-party match grant, administered federally by Food and Nutrition Services and in Oregon by DHS. Colleges are reimbursed 50% of their expenses to expand services for SNAP recipients. The goal is to increase equitable opportunity and economic mobility for SNAP students, so they can advance in their college and career pathway.
"That's how you grow your program," said Mitsui. "This year, we're projected to bring in an additional $6 million to all 17 community colleges, and that money goes to help students complete their programs. STEP funding can be used for tuition, child care, transportation, gym, books, whatever. Students need flexible funding."
One project that is typical of Mitsui's modern community college: PCC is building an Opportunity Center on Northeast 42nd Avenue in Portland, with DHS case managers and community-based organizations located there, to integrate wrap-around support and services for students, to integrate services and support around students, particularly around basic needs insecurity. Home Forward will build an affordable housing complex with 100 beds. "They'd be able to get food stamps and other supports at the center, and then hop on a shuttle, and they can go to any of our campuses to take programs like welding or maritime manufacturing or advanced manufacturing," Mitsui explained. "And then a couple of years later, with their associate's degree, they get a great job and then make space for the next family at the housing complex."
He believes community college can be a step out of poverty.
"PCC is a bridge to opportunity, a bridge to a better life for countless members of our communities regardless of what ZIP code a student is born in," Mitsui said. "Nearly a quarter of all students, about 28,000, a year, who face equity barriers in Oregon's higher education system, pursue upward mobility through PCC."
Mitsui never sold his Seattle home, so he and his wife are moving back there to remodel it and be with family.
"I want to do research on my family, and research the history on my wife's side and my side, while I can talk more to my mom and write things down," Mitsui said. "I want to provide something for my daughters, in terms of, 'OK, this is where you came from.'"
Portland Community College has chosen a new president, Adrien Bennings, to start this summer.
Bennings has her work cut out. Community colleges usually boom in periods of high unemployment, as the nation experienced during the pandemic. In tough times, many people decide it's better to get educated than to look for nonexistent jobs.
However, the COVID-19 recession had the opposite effect. Community colleges nationwide saw a decline. PCC's annual student headcount peaked in 2011-12 at 95,031. The headcount in 2019-20 dropped to 60,398, and in 2020-21, it fell to 50,566.
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