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Jack Kent Cooke winner thrives from inspiration

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Elizabeth Bair, winner of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship

Cascade Campus President, Algie Gatewood presenting award to Elizabeth Bair - Elizabeth Bair

When Elizabeth Bair (northeast Portland) heard there was a winner of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s undergraduate transfer scholarship in her class, she figured it was somebody else. She was wrong.

Bair, 48, is one of 51 nationwide recipients, and second from PCC, that will receive $30,000 per year for three years to complete a bachelor’s degree. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awards the undergraduate transfer scholarships each year to students attending two-year institutions in the United States who plan to transfer to four-year institutions. This year, the Foundation received 723 applications for the 51 awards making it one of the hardest awards to get.

“It’s a huge opportunity for me,” said Bair, who earned a two-year degree in gerontology and a transfer degree at PCC. “I’m a later student and by the time I finish my bachelor’s degree I’ll be 52. This makes all the difference. I can’t believe it.”

Bair, who plans to attend Pacific University, had heard about the award while taking online PCC classes from her parents’ home in Coos Bay last December. She had two weeks to apply and began to feverishly write the essay that is required for the application.

“My inspiration was thinking how great this will be for me,” she recalled.

In 2004, Bair was working at a call center in Portland while supplementing her income by making jewelry and cleaning houses when she decided to enroll at the college to become an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist helps those injured in accidents to live independently. She was inspired by her mother, who was diligently cared for by therapists, marveling at the difference they made in her life.

“I decided I’d rather do that than be a manager of a call center,” Bair said of her career goals. “The hard part was believing that I could do it at my age. I went through a lot of changes at that time, a divorce, lot of things changed in my life. So I decided to take a few months off. I wanted to spend some time alone to think what I wanted to do with my future. I have a lot of life left and I didn’t want to sleep through it.”

Cascade Campus President Algie Gatewood with award

She has two daughters – Jessica, 28, and Teresa, 25. Teresa started college first and worked plenty of jobs to get through school. Her efforts inspired Elizabeth to follow in her daughter’s footsteps and she quickly earned her high school degree from PCC before moving on to college-level courses.

“If she could do it I could do it,” Bair said. “In the classes all of the kids are younger than me. I have to really work at it and they seem to just catch it. I have to work full time at it.”

Bair said the turning point at PCC was the advice of one of her instructors – Katherine Karr in the counseling and advising office at the Cascade Campus.

“She teaches people how to grow, be important and make a difference,” Bair said. “I really enjoyed the classes. It was good reinforcement for me. They taught me to become a leader even though I thought it was too late for me.”

But her true inspiration has been her parents. Her mother Fern, 78, was a nurse and her father Floyd, 78, was an Air Force mechanic and logger. He suffered an on-the-job injury and hurt his spine. At the age of 42, he went back to Southwestern Community College to find a new career.

“He said the hardest thing about going back to school was the first day where he discovered everyone was much younger than him, but he did well after that,” Bair said of her father’s inspiration. “If I succeed it’s because I had great parents. A lot of people 48 years old don’t need help from their folks. But they have helped me. They are so compassionate. Family made it possible for me to do this. My ex-husband was also supportive. So I had a safety net that enabled me to do this.” 

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »