Just weeks before Schon Hybertsen walked across the stage at Oregon Institute of Technology's Wilsonville campus, his mother died unexpectedly.
"It's been a long road," said the 30-year-old recent graduate and father of two. "I know my mother would have been proud. ... It's very meaningful to me that my kids can see me struggle and be sad, let the tears fly and rise above. I can conquer anything. My kids see that and they know they can as well."
Hybertsen was one of 149 graduates who turned their tassels, marking the next chapter of their lives at the Oregon Tech's Portland-metro campus commencement June 16.
"What stands out to me is that for many of the students at the Portland-Metro campus, they are returning to higher education several to many years out from their high school graduation. Some are getting second degrees, the vast majority are working and going to school; a good many are veterans," said Di Saunders, associate/vice president of communications and public affairs at Oregon Tech. "Many have spouses, children, stories of hardships (and) long journeys."
Hybertsen never thought he would cross the stage.
Hybertsen grew up in Dufur, Ore, a town of about 600 people. He was heavily involved with sports and excelled in hands-on activities.
"Sports, being part of leadership in that manor, led to a couple state championships, one in football, two in track and field, and playing state in basketball."
Eastern Oregon University wanted to recruit Hybertsen for football but because of a knee injury, he had to step away from sports and instead started working straight out of high school. He eventually worked for a lumber mill until he realized he wanted to pursue higher education so he could move up in the workforce.
He attended Columbia Gorge Community College and studied renewable energy technology. But he wanted more of a challenge.
"I wanted to go big or go home and I felt Oregon Tech was the best choice," he said.
Though he didn't receive his degree, he started taking classes geared toward Oregon Tech so he could transfer and pursue his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 2015.
Hybertsen credits his success to his support system, both at school and at home. He said he couldn't have done it without his family, wife, and mother, who helped watch his two children while he was at school and others.
"Growing up in a small town, I was really shy and kind of a loner. Oregon Tech really helped me to break out of my shell and not be afraid to ask for help or to help others," he said. "This last term was hard for me and hard for so many. The overall attitude was stress but I got to witness a dozen students putting their hands on each others' shoulders and walk through it together. It was awesome to see."
Yousif AlQafshat was the graduating student speaker. AlQafshat came to Oregon Tech from Saudi Arabia to pursue his dream of becoming a manufacturing engineer.
"To be an international student, most of the time, it is an extra difficult position to be in, between missing your family and your life back home, it is easy to give up," AlQafshat said in his graduation speech. "Anything can discourage you easily. But every time it became hard, I remembered my family back home and how their and my sacrifice would lead up to this day. The day they will be proud of what I accomplished."
Other speakers included Class of 1963 alumnus Curtis Langer, Nagi Naganthan, the president of Oregon Tech and Maria Pope, the president and CEO of Portland General Electric.
"Maria Pope was a great choice. She was born and raised in Portland, is a female in a somewhat nontraditional area – finance – and then moved into the top role at PGE," Saunders said. "Many of our graduates are also women in engineering and other areas in which they are still under-represented. Always great to have female role models who all students of all genders can admire, learn from and look up to."
Twenty-eight-year-old Kelcy Gillen was the first and only Oregon Tech student this year to earn her master's in applied behavior analysis.
"Since I was in middle school, I had wanted to be an occupational therapist and had planned on enrolling in graduate school right after undergraduate," said Gillen, who attended Pacific University for her bachelor's degree in exercise science. "My plan changed my senior year of undergraduate, and I decided to take a year off and then apply for graduate school. I moved to Bend to be a ski instructor for one winter and it snowballed into four winters."
Returning to school was the hardest part for Gillen.
While attending the two-year program, she worked full-time at Western Psychological and Counseling Services, where she continues to work post graduation.
"It was a challenge balancing work, school, and life, but it was also a great opportunity to apply what I was learning in classes to the real world," Gillen said. "I could not have completed this journey without the support of my family and the faculty at Oregon Tech. … (I) am so thankful for all of the work they put into teaching and promoting this field."
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