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Despite the pandemic and switch to virtual world, PCC’s class of 2020 finishes strong

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One after another, the “Class of 2020” at Portland Community College has overcome the devastating effects that COVID-19 that has wreaked havoc on their academic and personal lives — job disruption, transitioning of classes to online or remote, and food and housing insecurity. These graduates didn’t have a June commencement to celebrate their accomplishments due to social distancing guidelines (commencement has been delayed until December), but graduates have persevered and reached their goals.

Here is a sampling of the inspiring graduates that are part of “Class of 2020.”

Phuong Vo: Service-Focused

Since she was a small child, 29-year-old Phuong Vo always dreamed of studying abroad and helping others. She grew up and went to a high school in a rural area of Hue City, Vietnam and experienced hardships that would have made studying in another country like the U.S. seem out of reach.

However, a few years after graduating from the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City, Phuong decided to reach for her dreams and move to the U.S. where she discovered PCC.

Phuong Vo.

Phuong Vo.

“Being here in the U.S. has been a miracle for me,” Phuong explained. “My dad passed away early when I was in high school, but I did not give up my studies. I continued to pursue my dreams despite the financial challenges.”

At PCC, Phuong found the support she needed to reach those dreams. She accessed the college’s food pantry, and got involved by becoming a member of student government so she could help other students and build her English skills. In addition, she earned a PCC Foundation scholarship that helped her pay for her classes.

“The scholarship motivated me to keep trying and move forward with my education,” she explained. “At PCC, I feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging, which helps me feel safe and able to focus on my studies, and my English has improved dramatically.”

The support gave Phuong the confidence to expand her efforts. She traveled with a PCC group to support under-represented communities by building homes for low-income families in Hawaii and spent time in Washington D.C. where she lobbied elected leaders on student issues. Plus, she mentors fellow international students and volunteers with the non-profit organization Rose Haven, which assists people experiencing trauma and mental health issues.

When the college transitioned to virtual due to COVID-19, Phuong borrowed a laptop from ASPCC and never missed a beat. It also allowed her to keep advocating for students by planning and running online events, conduct social media outreach, and run her club meetings to keep the sense of community going for her students.

Phuong is graduating this spring with an Associate of Arts Transfer Degree in Sociology to add to her associate degrees in Science and General Studies. She is now looking to transfer to the University of Oregon’s InterCultural Service Program — a scholarship program for international students focused on community service.

“I would love to work for a non-profit organization as their program/project coordinator, or as an educator in Africa to help communities there,” she said.

Tyler Robin: Researcher in the Making

Tyler Robin is a first-generation college student who goes by the pronouns they, them and their. When the 24-year-old Robin entered PCC, they were unsure of what they wanted to do. But one of Robin’s favorite teachers inspired them to go after their passion — chemistry — and become a scientific researcher. 

“I was lucky enough that one of my favorite teachers taught me that it’s okay to be unsure, but just do your best,” explained Robin, who is graduating this spring with an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree in Physical Science. “I have met some amazing teachers that inspire me every day to continue my education and aim higher and higher.”

Tyler Robin

Tyler Robin.

Chemistry faculty Stephanie Bryan and Ken Friedrich set Robin on the way into the world of science by supporting, pushing and inspiring. Composition and Literature Instructor Melody Wilson helped Robin stay on the science path, and Student Life and Leadership Manager Kendi Esary showed them how to lead.

This support led Robin to become involved in both student leadership and the BUILD EXITO scientific training program at Portland State University. In student leadership, Robin learned how to make a difference in the lives of their fellow students, and joined the campus sustainability team and creative writing club, as well as managed the student food pantry at the Cascade Campus.

Robin will continue their education at PSU as a Chemistry major with the plan of going to grad school. In light of the pandemic, scientific researchers are in big demand, and Robin hopes to make a difference.

“I want to have my own lab and do my own research,” Robin explained. “Without all of the help and guidance at PCC, I wouldn’t be here today. As a first-generation student, going to a community college was the easiest option for me. It was cheaper and less pressure. Once I got here I was told by many people that it was the best school in the area and they were right!”

Hunter Hall: Future Educator

Hunter Hall earned his Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree this spring and is on his way to Western Oregon University to work on his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. Hall wants to be a high school teacher and eventually a principal or superintendent so he can shape the lives of young students.

“I want to make a difference in how the education system is run,” Hall said.

Hunter Hall

Hunter Hall.

For the past few years, Hall has been an integral student leader at Rock Creek-ASPCC, and was president of its math and gaming student clubs. It was through these leadership roles that the PCC Foundation scholarship recipient developed his skills to help him accomplish his goal of becoming an educator.

“ASPCC helped me forge a path for my future goals,” said the 21-year-old from Beaverton. “I learned a lot about what it’s like to lead and communicate with others.”

Hall said the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent transition to online classes has been tough. But he said the staff have helped him get through it and he leans on his instructors to assist him in reaching his goals.

“I think the biggest hurdle has been the deadlines and the lack of socializing. When I was doing in-person classes, I would always be super-engaged, and finish my work on time. But since COVID-19, I’ve found it harder to keep up with the work.

“However, I think the one PCC staff member who made a difference in my life was Damien Adams,” he continued. “His passion for mathematics and genuine care for the students around him, really showed me what kind of educator I want to be.”

Chisato Sugiyama: International Mentor

“PCC made me feel comfortable immediately,” said Chisato Sugiyama.

Sugiyama is an international student from Japan and served as the director of programming and clubs for ASPCC-Cascade. She’s spent the last two years at PCC and is preparing to graduate with her associate degree in International Studies.

During her three years at PCC, the college gave her the support she needed to be successful through helpful faculty and services. This motivated her to get more involved on campus. As a result, Sugiyama joined the international student club, where she said she found a supportive community where she found welcoming mentors.

Chisato Sugiyama

Chisato Sugiyama.

Sugiyama earned a PCC Foundation scholarship, which allowed her to dive deeper into her studies, and she hopes that more international students take the time to apply.

In addition to leading Cascade’s programming and college-wide student events, she assists with international student orientation every term and loves seeing new students’ faces when they realize the amount of resources available at PCC.

“I was introverted when I came here and am not anymore,” Sugiyama stated. “I really found myself at PCC. I wasn’t very active in Japan and after seeing so many passionate people here – following their dreams and having so many goals – I was encouraged. I’ve changed, and I even surprise myself by how much.”

When she decided to study in the United States, Sugiyama didn’t know anyone who had traveled internationally and said her English was “barely understandable” at the time. When she first arrived in Portland, the Office of International Student Services connected Sugiyama to a host family and she began to learn English.

“My face muscles hurt because of how expressive English is compared to Japanese,” Sugiyama said.

In this time of COVID-19, Sugiyama helps English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students feel connected by organizing fun online programs and Zoom meetings to make them feel connected.

“They can share their current situation and alleviate the built-up stress from this uncertain situation,” Sugimaya explained.

She plans to transfer to a four-year college next year and is thrilled to be graduating. She hopes to work with an international non-profit organization to mitigate poverty and create better alternative living conditions in developing countries.

Kendall Cottrell: Spirit of an Entrepreneur

In her younger days, 21-year-old Kendall Cottrell didn’t feel like she fit in. Growing up in a rural area near King City and attending Tualatin High School, she struggled to make connections.

“I have a family that battles addiction and struggles with healthy communication,” she explained. “This led to a feeling all my life that I didn’t fit in anywhere, a feeling that really came to a peak in high school. Now, years later, I have found what makes me feel passionate and motivated, met wonderful people that have positively impacted my life, and have been able to become someone who I never thought I was capable of being for a long time.”

Kendall Cottrell.

Kendall Cottrell.

Cottrell, who loves to paint, draw, sculpt and any other medium she can get her hands on, has fit right in at PCC. She is chapter president of Phi Theta Kappa Alpha Eta Iota, earning an associate degree in Small Business Management this spring. She also leads the student government’s legislative affairs work for the Sylvania Campus and is a member of the college’s strategic planning committee. And, in her free time she studies history and runs a small business where she creates artwork and merchandise.

“I think that growth was in a large part due to the connection I was able to make with students and faculty here at PCC,” stated Cottrell, who has traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for community colleges, affordability and expanded Pell Grants. “PCC is a place where there is freedom to build around your specific academic and career goals. I was able to have a well-rounded education in my specific areas of focus without having to move across the country for a program or take on immense debts.” 

She credits art faculty Christine Weber as an inspiration and mentor. Cottrell said Weber would stay after class with her to develop a performance for the student art exhibition. 

For the future, Cottrell is aiming to run an independent art business as well as mentor other growing artists in business management. 

“Next year, I am dedicating towards building my business and plan to continue my higher education in small business management,” she said. “The biggest support I received at PCC is in the form of time. Guidance counselors helped me to develop an educational plan that met my personal, professional, and academic needs. I have been able to have long conversations with other students and also with faculty about endless interesting subjects. This made a difference.”

Khanh “Harmo” Bui: Overcoming Barriers

A few years ago, Khanh “Harmo” Bui traveled from Vietnam to Beaverton and enrolled at PCC as an international student. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Portland, the 20-year-old had no choice but to overcome and find a pathway to graduation. 

“I prefer in person interactions to virtual interactions,” Bui admitted. “Even though I’m getting used to remote operations, I still wanted to physically go to school. Another barrier that I and many other international students are facing is the English language, which is not our native language. I have to make more of an effort in processing academic terms and concepts, especially as I am pursuing a psychology major, which has a whole different language, too. I have to work harder every day to turn my weakness into my strength.”

Khanh Bui.

Khanh “Harmo” Bui.

Bui used that strength to overcome those obstacles and is graduating this spring with an Associates of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree in Psychology. This fall, she will most likely use her degree to transfer to the University of California at Irvine.

At the college, she loved getting involved in on-campus activities and leadership opportunities. She worked as an organizer for ASPCC-Sylvania and orientation mentor in the Office of International Student Services. She also served as Vice President of Fellowship for PCC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa.

“These opportunities helped me achieve and thrive as I built my leadership skills,” Bui said. “From a person like me who has no knowledge or experience in leadership, I now have more confidence and can adapt to different situations.”

She credits her psychology instructor Cynthia Golledge as the one faculty who stimulated her curiosity the most in her classes. Bui said Golledge was a big influence in advising on her major, choice of classes and career goals.

“She was so amazing and she had a strong passion in teaching psychology, which made me want to pursue it,” Bui said.

Bui also found support from college support services. She accessed the campus’ food pantry, which helped her feel less stressed on spending money on food. Bui also used the Counseling Office whenever she felt under pressure in terms of studying and working. 

“I had someone to talk to and release my stress and overcome challenges,” she explained. “As a result, I want to talk to my fellow international students and help them overcome difficulties they are facing. I also want to become a motivation for other students to work harder and reach their goals, spread the love to people and provide more opportunities for later potential generations to thrive.”

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 »