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Recent graduate Frances Fagan is in a league of her own

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It didn’t rise to the level of NBA star LeBron James in terms of notoriety, but Portland Community College’s own version of “The Decision” was no less fascinating and impactful for those who know Frances Fagan.

At PCC's commencement ceremony in June, Dean of Sylvania's English and World Languages Division Dave Stout congratulates Frances Fagan for her acceptance into Yale.

At PCC’s commencement ceremony in June, Dean of Sylvania’s English and World Languages Division Dave Stout congratulates Frances Fagan for her acceptance into Yale.

The 2015 PCC graduate may not be taking her talents to South Beach, but rather to New Haven to pursue her undergraduate degree at Yale University. Fagan, who began at PCC taking Transitions Program classes and was a student in the Sylvania Campus’ Trio-funded Roots Program for low-income, first-generation students, had been mulling Mount Holyoke College, Cornell and Yale as possible transfer destinations. However, it was Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program that won her over to further her interest in refugee camp designs and how they relate to common library infrastructures.

“It was an intense decision for me,” Fagan admitted. “But ultimately I found I liked the idea of going into this program. The staff is so incredibly diverse and I feel that the creative cultural element would make me stronger as I go into more focused research. It seemed like a broader and richer experience altogether. It will support and add to research I’ve begun in my honors capstone project at PCC.”

But Cornell didn’t completely lose out in “The Decision” like Cleveland did back in 2010 to Miami with LeBron. Fagan said she wants to get her graduate degree in Organizational Behavior through Cornell’s International Labor and Relations School when she finishes with her undergraduate work at Yale. So, really, everyone wins.

“I’m pretty excited about the whole thing, surreal as it feels at the moment,” she said.

A Self-Taught Snowboarder

It’s a 180-degree turnabout for a woman born in Hood River and who would move around a number of times with her family within Bohemian communes, shuffling between several schools by the time she was in middle school. Fagan said she compensated for the lack of classroom structure by reading extensively and pursuing her own curiosities in the arts and sciences. She believed that a traditional, formal education wasn’t necessary to succeed.

“Throughout my childhood when I asked a question I was told to look it up,” said Fagan, who attended free lectures at local colleges and universities on subjects that interested her. “I never thought a formal education was for me, that it was affordable, or even a possibility for me.”

In 2005, a personal challenge led to her realizing she needed structured schooling. Fagan had built a cool career as a Level 3 snowboard instructor and was working seasonally for Mt. Hood Meadows. She even gained international certification and coached in Austria and Germany. However, she returned to Portland to re-career and train to become a tattoo artist.

Medical emergency changes everything

But her career change had to be put on hold after suffering seizures. A subsequent scan of her head revealed that she had brain cancer and was rushed into surgery to remove a massive tumor.

“Within a month I had to have three surgeries,” Fagan said. “It totally changed my life. I was paralyzed on half of my body and I had to go through radiation treatments. I had to depend on other people like I hadn’t before and I couldn’t work anymore. So, I began volunteering much more actively in an environment that was safe and at a my own pace.”

She volunteered at several non-profit organizations, including KBOO radio and Portland Community Media, producing art-oriented multimedia projects for local cable access TV. As Fagan recovered from cancer she gained new skills by getting out of her comfort zone such as learning how to work in a team environment and using technical equipment.

In the summer of 2013, she organized a large production for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Arts Festival and although the experience was awesome she admits there were some things she was unprepared for. The adversity made her feel like there were things she needed to learn outside of what she was interested in. It caused her to rethink her self-guided education and to yearn for a deeper understanding of the world.

Back to Her Future

In the winter of 2013, Frances Fagan became a college student at Portland Community College. She had started at PCC before, but lasted a term and just walked away from her classes to work on Mt. Hood during a good snow season not realizing she would get poor grades. On her second go around, Fagan applied for a PCC Foundation scholarship and got it. She said this was the biggest source of motivation for her to improve the 1.7 GPA that resulted from her first stint and prove to the donors who believed in her that she was a great investment.

“Someone out there, a complete stranger, had faith in me when I didn’t even have faith in myself,” Fagan said. “The scholarship allowed me time to focus on my studies, take a heavier class load and do as well as I possibly could in my coursework. It changed my life. It shaped how much confidence I had in my ability and showed me that it was possible for me to succeed.”

Fans of Fagan

PCC instructor Bryan Hull, who teaches writing and English at Sylvania, was one of those support pillars for Fagan. In spring 2014, she enrolled in his Honor’s writing course. Hull said it was a smart and lively group, but while most students were busy hammering out papers the hour before they were due, Fagan was absorbed in all of the resources he presented in class.

“It was clear to me from the outset that she engaged with the material fully and completely,” he said. “She was open to digesting any and all ideas, or books and theories that I could toss at her.”

Thanks to those Transitions classes when she first started and the hours of tutoring and counseling she got from the ROOTS Program, Fagan excelled at college

Thanks to those Transitions classes when she first started and the hours of tutoring and counseling she got from the ROOTS Program, Fagan excelled at college

Phil Seder agreed. He never taught Fagan, but she sought him out about his theories on how colleges engage with their communities. He steered her to researching public libraries and how they are set up, which assisted in Fagan’s core studies on refugee camps. She even served on a committee for the PCC Library to increase student engagement in library services and was a research assistant for the campus’ Multicultural Center.

“What ensued was an 18-month rambling conversation that spanned architecture, group dynamics, the future of labor, the nature of bureaucracy and gender equality,” Seder remembered. “Frances had perhaps the most open and inquiring mind I have encountered.”

Making Her Mark at PCC

Thanks to those Transitions classes when she first started and the hours of tutoring and counseling she got from the ROOTS Program, Fagan excelled at college. She would earn a permanent spot on PCC’s Honors List with straight A’s (with one B in trigonometry) and a 3.9 GPA. The student who once believed college wasn’t for her was selected as a Student Ambassador to represent the student voice at college events in the community. And a year after starting her classes, Fagan earned the 2014-15 Rose Scholarship, the PCC Foundation’s most prestigious scholarship honor, in recognition of her academic achievements.

It seems LeBron James has got nothing on Frances Fagan.

“Frances is a multi-talented and inspiring student,” said Sara Neill, a student resource specialist and advisor in the Roots Program. “She has also been a great inspiration to other ROOTS and Honors students at Sylvania, who know her and have realized from Frances that it is possible to go from PCC to the college of their dreams.”


About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, is the Public Relations Manager at Portland Community College. A graduate of Portland State University, James has worked as a section editor for the Newberg Graphic, Wo... more »

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x by Linda Browning 6 years ago

Congratulations on your many accomplishments, Frances! You are well on your way to an amazing life.

x by Mona Johnson 6 years ago

Frances, all the best as you continue to work hard, seek out peer and faculty support, follow your curiosity, and inspire others to expect more. Don’t forget to laugh and share your joy with others! Mona

x by Frances Fagan 6 years ago

Thank you Linda, and thank you Mona for all your wonderful instruction and support – you made a huge impact on my life at a time I really needed it.
I cannot imagine a better place to begin this adventure than PCC. I hope supportive programs like Transitions and ROOTS remain available for all non-traditional students who dream big.

x by Maki Yoshinaga 6 years ago

I’m so happy for you, Frances! Congratulations, wonderful woman. I’m sure you will be continuing to be more successful.

x by Donna Reed 6 years ago

On behalf of PCC Library, congratulations Frances! We have enjoyed getting to know you and have appreciated the energy you have lent to the community zones project (coming Fall 2015). Additionally, your participation in the sources video was amazing. Best wishes on your next adventures. Yale has an amazing, creative library and I am sure you’ll find a comfy home there.

Donna Reed
Library Director

x by Sharon Deegaqn 6 years ago

Frances, Frances, Frances. How cool is this? How cool are you? I’m happy for you and proud to call you my friend. You are, indeed, an inspiration, and there is no telling how far you will go, how much you will create, and how many others will benefit just by knowing you, and/or by being touched by the work that you are doing and will do. This is very exciting and most poignant to me because of who you are and how you live, your generous heart, mind and spirit. I’m smiling at you right now. Yes!

x by Chuck Pearce 6 years ago

Miss Fagan, I am so very happy for you! I know it’s been a long time since Hood but I wanted to pass on a congratulations on all your hard work. And a good luck in all your future endeavors. Awesome.

x by Ja’qlyne Slaughter 6 years ago

Congratulations on your hard won victory! Thank you for being an inspiration and I wish the absolute best in all of your future endeavors.

x by Nikolas Sanow 6 years ago

Whoa! I haven’t seen you but in passing in the last few years, but this was a very pleasant surprise. Congratulations, Frances! Have fun in Connecticut and keep up the forward momentum!

x by Denise Mares 6 years ago

Frances, I am so excited to read of your accomplishments! A bright future awaits you, my Transitions Sister! :)

x by Shauna Arnold 6 years ago

Thank you for sharing your story, Frances! It’s so inspiring as a returning student.

x by Frances Fagan 6 years ago

Aaaaaah, thank you all so much for the love!!!

x by dorothy Payton 6 years ago

“Ecstatic” does not describe how thrilled I am for you on the next leg of your journey. All the best as you continue to explore your divergent interests and converge your work around your passions. Please stay in touch and keep us posted on what you discover over the horizon. CONGRATULATIONS!

x by Kimberley Valentine 6 years ago

Congratulations! You will continue to inspire and remind us that there is no limit to what we are capable of with hard work. Bask in the experience :) ROOTies!!

x by Michelle Melton 6 years ago

Frances, you are a great inspiration. I’m so happy that we had some time together in Transitions. Your enthusiasm and encouragement kept me going in my college venture, and I’m just slowly making great progress. I’m so happy to see how far you’ve gone. Best of luck and good wishes in your continued progress and life endeavors. Please stay in touch so that we might reunite again some day. <3 Michelle Melton

x by Inga Kemnitz 6 years ago

I am pretty sure if anybody could do it, Francis is the one. I haven’t known her for long, but we completed Honors 201 together and presented our capstones at the Symposium together. Francis reminded me that people matter and her dreams and admiration for her capstone could/will really change lives. I’m excited to see what this girl does…she really is a league of her own. Good luck Francis!!

x by Donald Fagan 6 years ago

Congratulations Frances! I’m very proud, and inspired as well, by your success! I’m certain you will succeed in everything you do.

x by Hasan Alhamwi 6 years ago

Frances, congratulations on your incredible achievements! I wish you the best of luck as you continue you to pursue your academic goals. I am so glad that I got to know you during the past year. You are a great inspiration, and you really are a league of your own.

x by Asher Levine 6 years ago

Congrats, Frances! You’ve been a huge inspiration to many of us Transitions and Roots folk. I hope that your good fortunes continue to rise. You are truly a brilliant light, ascending from PCC onward! :D

x by Abby 6 years ago

Hey Frances!
I know we didn’t know each other too long (we took Honors Speech together), but I’m glad that things are going so well for you…and heck, maybe in a year I’ll see you at Yale ;-)

x by Elizabeth Yarrow 6 years ago

Congratulations Frances! You are a true inspiration to our community here at PCC!

x by Kendra Coffey 6 years ago

It is inspiring to see that someone who may originally not had the perfect GPA rise to near perfection and be admitted to a top school like Yale. I’m not planning on Harvard or Yale but I am planning on attending a top art school to do animation. Calarts is the best in the world for animation because they have strong ties to Disney and I was concerned that my previous academic record from a previous school I went to might hinder me even though so far I am doing excellent at PCC! It’s wonderful to see that schools, the best of the best, are willing to overlook the past for greatness in the present!

x by steven gordon 6 years ago

Yaaay, Frances! Wow! Nice going! Check out the pizza at Sally’s when you get to New Haven! Wishing you all good things in your future!

x by Corie pounders 6 years ago

Frances you are such an amazing person! Intelligent, genuine, beautiful, kind, you are one of a kind! We are so proud of you! Even just your energy is refreshing! What an amazing journey your on! We love you girl!
-The pounders

x by Nick Jones 6 years ago

Hi Fran! You used to work at the Sushi place on 37th next to my pastel colored house. I’m Jones! It was always fun hanging out with you and I clearly remember the health issue that arose. I kept looking at the picture on the MyPCC page thinking “do I know her?” What a wonderful article about your prestigious academic career. Glad to see you’re doing well, you look amazing and healthy, you’re hair look’s reeeeallly good, and you’re smile is just as I remember it. Good luck at Yale!

x by Frances.Fagan@pcc.edu 6 years ago

Greetings from New Haven!!! I cannot tell you how much all this support means to me, especially now so far from all my friends and family in the Northwest. However excited I am, I’m fully aware I’ve moved from one of the loveliest places on the planet. I’m taking pictures like crazy though – anyone can follow me on Instagram at Frances.Fagan. Y’all are so wonderful, please know it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my community. It seriously takes a village – and an awesome editor doesn’t hurt!! XOXO!!!!

x by Wanda Butterfield Page 6 years ago

Wow!! So happy for the good news. My late husband worked for P.C.C. and several of us attended P.C.C., before moving on to receive our four year degrees. This article brings tears of joy to my eyes!! Thanks for publishing it!!

x by Nik Bradwell 6 years ago

Frances I’m SOOO excited for you! We had class 2-3 years ago. Mona Johnson I believe. You were doing incredibly awesome then so it only makes sense your crushing those dreams you were talking about back then! Congratulations lady you deserve every last bit!!!

x by lisa dzajic mcgill 6 years ago

Dearest Frankie It has been a great pleasure to experience your path with you and your journey to Yale I to am feeling this journey has been surreal over the past several years. I feel so blessed to have you in my life and I am beyond proud of you I so appreciate each new path you are on and racking up many frequent flyer miles!proud to be a Yale mom and cheerleader bessos

x by danwat1234 – Daniel Watkins 6 years ago

Congratulations Frances, your hard work will pay off!

“her interest in refugee camp designs and how they relate to common library infrastructures.”

That makes no sense to me. A refugee camp often is full of tents and poorly built wooden buildings. .. Libraries are often built better than a building in a refugee camp, and, the internal structure is quite different as well. There are shelves, books, computers, air conditioning. If it’s a big library it has steel beams to support the structure.

How a refugee camps and library infrastructure, even how the network of libraries in the USA are mapped out and connected through laws and sharing books, how does that relate to refugee camp designs AT ALL??

x by Frances Fagan 6 years ago

Hi Dan,

I’m glad you asked! The way library designs can relate to refugee camps is not so much their physical structures, but in the way libraries function. They offer books, access to computers and meeting spaces, as well as educational outreach into poor communities – including book mobiles and reading programs. Many libraries also offer free public workshops on skill-building, and resume classes for jobs. These things don’t need a classical physical structure to be as just effective in refugee camps, where there is a great need to develop skills, teach literacy and offer community support and outreach.

Also, libraries have streamlined how books and documents are transferred from one agency to another, and one book to a specific person, without a heavily political agenda. This kind of information exchange can also apply to refugees, who often wait many years for documents to make it through poorly organized information systems. These documents are necessary get visa’s or to access public resources and become eligible for legal work.

– You’re absolutely right that many of these integrated systems don’t exist in camps. This is why I’m doing this research – to build support for beginning to design comps with these features in mind, and to update older camps so that they are able to share information and resources more efficiently.

So, it’s not the physical space of libraries, but rather the methods of community support and the transfer of information and documents, that I feel can be applied to refugee camp designs. I am just beginning this research, and hopefully this idea will become more clear (and defendable) in the next few years.
I realize I have a lot to learn still. Talking about this idea, like in this letter to you, and in my program at Yale, is part of the learning process. I hope that clarified my research a bit!



x by David Betts 6 years ago

Frances, I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to get to know you. You are amazing and more, just like everyone has already stated. I’m coming late to this party, but that’s what happens when you switch to a semester format instead of quarters.
Much love to you. I’ll keep in touch!