When my wife, Melanie, and I moved to Portland from Washington, D.C., in 2016 we immediately noticed two things.
Here, the honking came from the geese.
And Portland has a lot of bridges.
Over the years, as president of Portland Community College, I've come to think of this institution as one of those bridges. A connection to a better life, a better tomorrow.
On one end of the bridge, there are hard-working, talented people who just need a break, an opportunity to learn new skills, to pursue new educational opportunities.
On the other end of that bridge are great jobs and careers that need filling.
This bridge, PCC, plays a key role in connecting the two, whether it is through adult high school completion, English for speakers of other languages, preparing students to transfer to a university or enter into the work force. Generations of students have migrated from one side of this bridge to the other.
My friend Eduardo Padron, the president emeritus of Miami Dade College, liked to say that "talent is universal, but opportunity is not." Our job is to make opportunity as universal as the talent around us.
We serve the veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, marching toward a new purpose; we serve the victim of domestic violence courageously seeking a new beginning for herself and her children; we serve the 55-year-old recently laid-off worker wondering if there is a future at his or her age; we serve immigrants from Mexico, or Kenya or Nepal, who seek a new beginning.
We are still the largest college in the state and serve nearly a quarter of all students in Oregon's two- and four-year system who face equity barriers.
Our most recent economic impact study shows that students gain $3.70 for every dollar that they invest in their PCC education; and society, as a whole, gains $8.20 through higher earnings of graduates and lower social costs.
While this is great, we know that we need to do more, because the barriers to crossing this bridge are getting bigger each year.
A recent survey by the Hope Center at Temple University showed that over 60% of our student respondents indicated that they experienced housing and/or food insecurity, while 19% experienced homelessness — and this was before the pandemic.
It is hard to focus on college when you aren't sure where your next meal will come from. Or where you are going to sleep.
Basic needs insecurity is not a Ramen rite of passage but a life circumstance when in Multnomah County a single parent with two young children needs to earn more than $76,000 per year to be self-sufficient.
Unfortunately, these data ring true to me.
When I was teaching, I could look out at my class and I knew that this student was living in his car, that student was living in a tent and these students were couch surfing. This was true year in and year out. Food drives and clothing drives would help, but these were temporary measures at best.
When I worked in student affairs, I found student resource centers to be helpful, but these, too, became overwhelmed by the need.
When I was the president of North Seattle College, we opened the Opportunity Center, where state agencies, community-based organizations and a WorkSource center were all in the building, integrating services and supports for college students at a much larger scale. However, we found that benefits policies often got in the way and it became clear that we needed both food pantries and food policies to address these challenges at scale.
When I worked with the Obama administration, I had the opportunity to work at a policy level and then bring that experience here to PCC.
At PCC, our proposal to form Pathways to Opportunity was supported by my peer community college presidents and PCC became the lead college for this statewide community of practice that integrated benefits like food stamps with financial aid and other supports like the Oregon Department of Human Service's STEP program, which helps students receiving food stamps to pay for food, transportation, books, child care and tuition.
The goal isn't to make students dependent on food stamps. Rather, it's to make students self-sufficient by gaining the skills needed to cross that bridge.
All 17 Oregon Community Colleges are now part of this program and we serve more food stamp recipients every year. And every year we see students move off of food stamps because they got that great job that they trained for, they crossed that bridge with a little help. Like the student who came to us while on food stamps, got a welding credential and then a job making a really, really good salary and no longer needed food support. I want to thank Dan Haun, the self-sufficiency programs director at state Department of Human Services, and his colleagues for being courageous and supportive partners — they have changed key policies that are helping more students cross that bridge.
The purpose of Pathways to Opportunity, or PTO, is to help students put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, so they can focus on school, study more, work less and graduate.
Contrary to the stereotype of the college student using these benefits to party, the greater risk is that students won't apply for the benefits they are eligible for. These benefits, and poverty, have such a stigma attached to them, many of our students feel too ashamed to apply.
We want students to know that it's not a handout — it's an investment — one that will be returned eight-fold to all of us.
Part of PTO is to demystify and destigmatize this essential assistance.
The PTO experience helped lead to House Bill 2835, which put a benefits navigator on every public college campus in Oregon. These navigators will be the aggregators of public supports like food stamps and private supports like scholarships to help our students meet basic needs.
And these policy changes are aligned with new partnerships with philanthropists like Anne Naito.
Also, at PCC, thanks to our last bond, we are redesigning one of our centers to become an Opportunity Center to provide the wrap-around support. Next to the center will be an affordable housing complex, which will be built and managed by Home Forward, on college property. Our Willow Creek Center is also undergoing a transformation, funded in part by the Bank of America, to become an Opportunity Center. And discussions have begun regarding affordable housing at each of our comprehensive campuses.
Students will be able to access great programs, like the Dental Science program in the new Vanport Building, a new partnership led by Portland State University, along with Oregon Health & Science University and the city of Portland, where students become dental hygienists and dental assistants and we operate a low-cost dental clinic. Or the new advanced manufacturing training center, also built with bond funds, in Columbia County.
Because it all comes back to our students and who they are.
The average age of a PCC student is 27.
Many are the first in their families to attend college. Many speak languages other than English at home. For many, it is their second or third try at college.
Like Anya DeCarlo, who started a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Club at the Cascade Campus and earned a prestigious Oregon NASA Space Grant. When the pandemic started, she lost her job, which coincided with her rental lease ending. Anya was going to drop out of school, but she turned to the PCC Foundation for financial help and received an emergency grant and grocery store card gift cards, and was able to complete her studies. She transferred to PSU this fall.
Others who have crossed this bridge include Rebecca Skloot, author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks;" former state Sen. Margaret Carter and current Portland Fire Chief Sarah Boone.
Over a million people have stepped onto this bridge — and as I prepare to step off it, I think back to a call from my mom right after we moved to Portland, inquiring about our new home.
"Can you see Jantzen Beach?" she asked.
"No," I replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Well," she answered, "we could."
This is how I learned that my mom had lived in Portland as a girl, though under much different circumstances.
"We were held at the Livestock Expo," she said. "We could see the roller coasters and the Ferris wheel through the barbed wire. We lived in one of the horse stalls."
"A family of nine?"
"Yes. I can still remember the smell of horse manure."
My mother was one of 3,676 Japanese Americans held at the Portland International Livestock Exposition Center during World War II. After three months her family, along with hundreds of others, were transferred to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. After the war, she was released and eventually went to college.
That's where she met my dad, who was attending on the GI Bill.
Their journeys, from American prisons to an American college campus, changed the trajectory of their lives and, by extension, mine as well.
At the end of the conversation, my mom said, "I guess our family went from being a prisoner in Portland to being a president in Portland in one generation. How about that?"
"Yeah, Mom," I thought, "how about that!"
Such is the transformative power of higher education. It allowed our family to also cross that bridge.
Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College, has announced he will be retiring at the end of the academic year in June 2022. This column is adapted from remarks he made Nov. 17 after the Portland Business Alliance honored him with the William S. Naito Outstanding Service Award for his work in philanthropy and community leadership.
Mitsui's bridge building will continue
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