PCC’s big day in Salem highlights need to fund student support and training
Photos and Story by James Hill
It wasn’t the usual Portland Community College “Day at the Capitol” in Salem.
During PCC’s annual lobbying event on March 9, more than 130 students, staff and faculty hosted 30 virtual Zoom meetings with legislators to discuss the critical nature of this biennium budget.
Why is it critical? The COVID-19 pandemic combined with the wildfires have been devastating to Oregon, and the state’s community colleges are going to be critical in the recovery of the economy to help put Oregonians back to work. Community colleges are well-positioned to ensure the workforce receives the necessary skills and training essential for reinvigorating Oregon’s businesses and industries. In addition, community colleges serve the most under-represented and low-income students, especially many Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), and assisting them with their training and education is crucial in them joining any economic recovery.
As a result, the state’s 17 community colleges are asking the Oregon Legislature for $702 million in funding for the 2021-23 biennium that will give community colleges the ability to train up everyone in the workforce. This would give colleges the funding needed to maintain current services and keep tuition increases to an average of 3.5 percent per year statewide.
In addition, PCC is leading the effort to pass a bill to establish a benefits navigator, which would be placed at every public college and university campus in Oregon. The navigator would help students access federal aid like SNAP, child care, housing and much more.
Tracee Wells, PCC’s Discovering Options coordinator and business services team member, shared the story of one of her students, Nahlee Suvanvej, who overcame past addiction and mental health issues, but was not academically ready. The Career Launch workshop that Wells oversees is for non-traditional students and is in the spirit of the benefits navigator. It provided the guidance and support Suvanvej needed to get started on her new academic journey.
“I’m happy to say that Nahlee is in her second term at Portland State University,” Wells said. “Not only is she a 4.0 student but her professors tell me she is working at a graduate level. Everyday we serve some of Oregon’s most vulnerable students in this way. We strive to obtain this degree of academic success. That is why a benefits navigator is so critical.”
Ashley Pirrung of Lake Oswego is working on her associate of arts degree and plans to graduate in 2022 when she aims to transfer to PSU to focus on marketing. She said it was very stressful when she first entered school, but thanks to the support network at PCC she was able to improve her grades and work on her mental health during the pandemic.
“Having a benefits navigator would be very beneficial to students of a lower-income who need financial help and for those such as myself who may have specific needs in order to succeed,” Pirrung said. “It would help create easier access to education which makes a huge difference. When I graduated from high school, I did not have many choices because of my low GPA, but PCC gave me a chance to open a door to more possibilities! Students who have struggled in high school can use PCC to open more pathways and having the right sources for them to succeed is very essential to that process.”
Student advocate Angel Huynh, who is studying accounting and plans to graduate with an associate degree by 2023, was impressed by the lobbying effort on behalf of higher education. The event introduced her to the legislative process and provided her with the skills she needs to advocate for her fellow students.
“I was very shocked to learn that there are lawmakers in Oregon who would take their time to meet with community college students across the state,” said Huynh, who plans to work on a bachelor’s degree at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington after finishing up at PCC. “‘Day at the Capitol’ was very interesting because I had never been to one before in my life.”