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Alum Spotlight: Grad capitalizes on PCC’s support system, Johns Hopkins honor

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Neamhain Virtue seated at chair in SE Campus commons area.

PCC alum and current Portland State student Neamhain Virtue.

At Portland Community College, where possibilities abound, Neamhain Virtue (they, them, their) emerges as an example of the institution’s transformative prowess.

The Gresham resident spent two impactful years at PCC, earning an Oregon Transfer Associate’s degree with a focus on sciences. Their journey continues at Portland State University, where they currently are pursuing a bachelor’s degree, holding a pristine 3.95 grade point average.

Virtue’s aspirations extend beyond academics, delving into the realms of academic research and writing, fueled by a passion for Irish culture and history. Described by instructors as affable, pleasant, and dedicated to their craft, Virtue’s commitment reached new heights during the spring 2023 term.

In 2023, Johns Hopkins University unveiled a competitive undergraduate summer research program of mostly community college and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) students that was right up their alley. Virtue, advised by anthropology instructor Kerry Pataki, seized the opportunity, securing a spot among the 14 national finalists. The university’s new program consisted of eight full weeks, travel, room, board plus a $6,000 stipend on the Johns Hopkins campus.

Virtue stood tall to challenge stereotypes and prove that PCC is indeed a launchpad to unparalleled opportunities. As Virtue said about the experience, “I entered that program believing I wasn’t a real academic, just some community college student. I left genuinely believing that I could be an academic. Grad school might even be in my future after PCC.”

Neamhain Virtue looking at message board.

Virtue earned a spot among the 14 national finalists for Johns Hopkins University’s competitive undergraduate summer research program in 2023.

They took a moment from a busy PSU schedule to chat with us:

What program or area study are you in at Portland State, and how did PCC prepare you for the four-year experience?

Neamhain Virtue: I am currently studying for a Bachelor’s in Science in Liberal Studies at PSU. I really enjoyed my time at PCC, and I especially felt supported by my professors in the anthropology and philosophy departments. Feeling challenged and ultimately successful in my PCC classes helped me believe in myself that I could succeed at PSU. 

Q: How did the Johns Hopkins opportunity come about, and how did it go?

Virtue: Dr. Kerry Pataki, an anthropology professor at PCC, sent out information about it to our whole class. It seemed a little too good to be true, an opportunity to study a topic of my choosing, with expenses paid and a stipend? I almost didn’t apply, but I did. Several of my PCC professors were kind enough to provide references for me, and I was accepted! 

The summer program was an incredible experience. Together with a small cohort of peers from across the country, we spent 10 weeks learning more about the research process, including publication and academic journals.

They also provided so much support for those of us wanting to transfer to four-year universities or graduate schools. I really have Dr. Pataki and the amazing educators at Johns Hopkins to thank for it. 

What did you present and why?

Virtue: I presented themes of displacement and mental illness in the old Irish tale of ‘King Sweeney.’ I have a passion for Irish history and culture, and especially legends and folklore. I also am passionate about community and disability activism, and how we can build a society that incorporates everyone into the community, so those themes in the story were really interesting and important to me. The first few weeks at Johns Hopkins we did lots of brainstorming and general research to choose topics, and it was really amazing to see how no one starts a project with all the answers, figuring out a question is the first part of the research!

Neamhain Virtue on SE Campus, smiling.

Virtue received an Oregon Transfer Associate’s degree with a focus on sciences from PCC.

Why did you pick PCC, and what made it special for you?

Virtue: Initially my main considerations were affordability and accessibility. I started during the pandemic, so a place that was flexible and offered lots of online options was important. But the other reason I picked PCC was word of mouth. I’ve talked to people with masters and doctorates who told me their best academic years were at PCC, where they had some of the best classroom experiences, and that really influenced my community. I’m out in Gresham so I considered other community colleges too, but ultimately I’m so glad I went with PCC. 

Did you face any hurdles in your life that have made earning a college degree more of a challenge?

Virtue: Definitely! I am a returning college student in my 30s, and a parent, and money has always been really tight. I left school at 20, convinced I would never be able to make it through two years of college, let alone four. My career options were incredibly limited through my 20s, and I was basically bouncing from entry-level job to entry-level job. Now, of course, I’ve got a family and a kid, which is its own challenge. But it also motivates me. I want to set an example for my kid of working towards things that matter  and are improving my life. 

What career are you striving toward?

Virtue: I’d love to work in academic research and writing! Writing is my other passion, besides Irish culture and history, so I’d love to combine those passions into a career. 

What kind of support have you received at PCC, and how did it make a difference?

Virtue: The financial support was obviously huge. The flexibility was great, too. Professors were willing to flex with me when I needed to take exams at a closer campus, or when I was overwhelmed by work and forgot about a deadline. There was a lot of compassion that made me feel like I mattered and helping me succeed mattered. 

What would you tell others about the value of PCC and your experience?

Virtue: I mean, honestly I feel like it’s changed the trajectory of my life. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but I feel fundamentally different. I feel so much more empowered. I have so much more knowledge of myself and faith in my own abilities, compared to the old me that didn’t think I could ever do any of this. And honestly, I’m really glad that I waited until my 30s to go back to school. I didn’t move to Oregon until my mid-20s, so I wouldn’t have gone to PCC or had any of these experiences if I hadn’t waited until I was ready. So, I guess I’d say, when the time is right, be brave and go for it! 

Thank you, Neamhain!

About James Hill

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