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Pardon me, Stanford, but I’m going to Reed College
Photos and Story by James Hill
Portland Community College’s Mary Emily O’Hara is one of 23 transfer students from around the world to be accepted to Stanford University this year. But O’Hara will not be going there this fall and instead she’ll be enrolling at Reed College.
This spring O’Hara, 33, completed an improbable “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” 180-degree turn in her life. A high school drop out, the North Portland resident moved to the area from Harlem. After taking a Web design class at PCC to see what college was all about in 2005, she was comfortable enough with the school to get her GED in 2006 and immediately enroll in transfer classes.
She recently completed her education at PCC, earning enough credits in art history and general transfer areas to satisfy enrollment requirements at her targeted universities. And what universities they are. For example, O’Hara targeted Stanford and Reed, which have an annual tuition and costs of $50,000 per year but their financial aid packages cover everything. So her tireless work and dedication to studying at all hours yielded acceptance letters from not only those two institutions, but also Mills College, University of San Francisco and University of Texas, to name some.
“I never expected to get into Stanford,” O’Hara said. “Their admission rate is 2 percent of the annual applicants. It was a total long shot. I knew this would be the only time in my life I would be applying to an undergraduate college and I might as well apply to one of the big ones to see what happened. If I didn’t I would kick myself for not even trying.”
As for Reed, it was always her first choice: “I really liked the campus and the vibe there,” she added. “It wasn’t the easiest school to get into so I made a list of backups. I always knew that if I was going to transfer to shoot for the best schools I could apply to.”
After deciding on Reed College and a day before her enrollment deposit was due, O’Hara got an e-mail from Stanford announcing she was one of the few lucky ones to be accepted. With a chance to go to the prestigious high-profile university she leaped into action. She called and was granted an extension by Reed to get her deposit in the following week. O’Hara then hopped into her 1988 Honda and drove down to Palo Alto, Calif., over that subsequent weekend to visit Stanford. Even though her car didn’t survive the trip, her resolve to attend Reed did.
“I actually cried several times about it I was so stressed out,” O’Hara said. “Part of me will always regret not going there. In the end, Reed is as good a school if not better for what I want to do. I had to make a fast decision and weighed so many factors, but it made more sense to stay home in Portland. The two main factors were lifestyle and financial and it would have been very difficult personally to move to Palo Alto this summer.”
Born in Chicago, raised by a counter-culture free spirit mother, O’Hara didn’t have money growing up and moved around a lot. She attended 10 different schools as a kid, and by time she was 15, O’Hara dropped out. She admits she has never known what it’s like to have money, so she has always been naturally resourceful – such as making full use of clothing-swaps and food banks.
O’Hara, who is openly gay and fervently off beat, left New York due to financial constraints and traveled across the country looking for a cheaper town and found Portland by chance. Once here, it was time to settle and find her way in life, finding small and interesting jobs to start, including freelance writing with Willamette Week.
“It took me a long time to learn how to undo the chaotic circumstances that I grew up with and become a more stable and settled person,” she said. “Going back to school at PCC actually really helped me to do by staying in one place, focusing on one goal and working toward it.”
So, O’Hara knew how to use her $12,000-per-year of grants, financial aid, loans and scholarships, including $1,200 from the PCC Foundation, to the fullest and was able to live off of whatever funds were left after paying for school and books. In a time when more and more students are flooding PCC to retrain or complete their education, and with financial aid applications up by 20 percent year over year, it’s clear that community colleges are the No. 1 choice for people of all ages.
“That was incredible,” O’Hara said of the financial help. “Over the previous school year I worked part time and it was pretty hard to balance work and school. During this last year I was able to go to school full time taking 18 to 19 credits a term and not having to work at all.
“I think community colleges are a great place to start,” she added. “In my experience of talking with many admissions officers at various prestigious universities more transfer students are accepted from community colleges than from four-year colleges. PCC is a great place to learn how to be a student.”
As one of her art history instructors, Christine Weber said she was not surprised by O’Hara’s ability. “She is proof of the caliber of student Portland Community College attracts and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for the future,” Weber said.