A Family First: College Graduation

Four youth in OYA custody recently became the first in their families to earn college degrees.

Four incarcerated youth in Oregon Youth Authority facilities are opening new opportunities by becoming the first in their families to earn college degrees.

These two young men and two young women recently earned associate degrees from community colleges across the state. And they’re not stopping: they all are charging forward toward a bachelor’s degree.

Meet OYA’s Class of 2020 college graduates.

Alissa M.

Alissa M. holding diploma

Degree: Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer (AAOT), Linn-Benton Community College

Facility School: Riverside High School, Young Women’s Transition Program

Alissa is one of the first youth to graduate college at the Oak Creek/Young Women’s Transition Program campus.

She remembers when college was not as much of a priority at the facility. But then Lori McGowan and Joy Koenig of Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) came along. MESD runs the schools at both facilities.

“Lori was the college lady to go to; she was really trying to figure out how to get everybody who was done with high school on a college path,” Alissa says. “For the most part, the staff and management have been very supportive of that. They advocated for us a lot.”

Alissa says she always liked to learn, but that “there were a lot of obstacles getting in the way” when she was in the community.

“When I came here, it seemed like that was all I was meant to do: to gain more knowledge, experience new things, experience a real college class,” she says. “My motivation comes from knowing that knowledge is power. Without knowledge, I just don’t know where I would be, honestly.”

In addition to college, Alissa took on multiple vocational certifications. She’s a Certified Recovery Mentor, and she earned certificates in wildland firefighting, forklift, and flagging.

After finishing her associate degree, Alissa transferred to Oregon State University. She’s working on a major in liberal studies, which she describes as a mix of psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

“I’ve been really interested in the brain, social construction, social behavior and influences between individuals and large groups of people,” she says. “I definitely want to do something in the psychology field, possibly as a holistic health coach or counselor.”

Alissa says the high point of her college journey so far was when her diploma was handed to her at a celebratory breakfast a few weeks ago. Linn-Benton Community College president Greg Hamann attended to hand out diplomas.

She also says she’s already seeing the impact her accomplishment has had on her family. Her twin sister, who hated high school and learning, has started asking Alissa about college.

“A lot of people say they never envisioned themselves at this point, but, deep down, I knew I had it in me. I just had to find it,” Alissa says. “Being here, clearing my mind, having support and motivation from staff who have been to college, people I could have intellectual conversations with — that changed everything.”

Andy S. M.

Andy S. M. headshot

Degree: Associate of Arts in general studies, Chemeketa Community College

Facility School: Lord High School, MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility

Andy finished up his Associate of Arts in general studies just recently, but he’s already closing in on a second degree. He’s on track to finish his Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer (AAOT) degree in the fall and plans to keep going for a bachelor’s in business administration after that.

It was not a path he had considered for himself before he became incarcerated.

“Then I put some more thought into it,” he says. “I had the help from other people to guide me, show me which classes were which. I am looking forward to owning my own company someday.”

Andy specifically called out his friend and peer, Agustin, for advocating for him and show him which classes he should take to meet his goals. He also thanks Dagny Brown, the college coordinator at Lord High School, and Kathleen Fullerton, the coordinator of Hope Partnership at MacLaren.

“Education is rehabilitation,” Andy says. “I wanted to do it for my family. My parents never really had the opportunity to go past middle school. I have this advantage here, so using it was something I wanted to keep in mind. It’s important and it’s setting that bar within my family and with those around me that I love and care for.”

Andy is still not exactly sure what career he will pursue, but he finds several business-related paths appealing, including human resources, hospitality management, and project management.

“I want to stay in something related to business administration,” he says. “Considering that I’m a felon, that’s the thing that will hold me back for a bit. But honestly, I know my degrees will help me out in the end.”

“I want to share my appreciation for everyone that was there that supported me throughout my journey,” he adds. “Even though I might not show it, deep down I have gratitude for them, especially my family for supporting me.”

Josefina R.

Josefina R. headshot

Degree: Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer, Portland Community College

Facility School: Three Lakes High School, Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility

Josefina is another of the first youth to graduate college at the Oak Creek/YWTP campus.

She’s already taken her transfer degree and enrolled at Portland State University, where she’s working toward a bachelor’s in criminology and criminal justice, with a minor in business administration.

“I want to learn more about different aspects of the criminal justice system,” she says. “Being part of the system prompted me to want to do that. My future goal is to start a program that helps juvenile and adult offenders, and I thought that also gaining a little knowledge about business would help me understand how to start one up and be effective.”

Josefina’s goal of helping others shows in the other accomplishments she has completed during her time at Oak Creek.

She was one of the first female youth at OYA to become a Certified Recovery Mentor. And this past February, she became the first youth of any gender in OYA history to earn the title of Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor while still in custody.

Both certifications allow her to use her own background and recovery from substance abuse to mentor others as they work toward sobriety.

Like Alissa, Josefina also remembers how much things changed at Oak Creek once college course offerings became a priority. She also credits Koenig for leading the charge in creating more educational opportunities on campus.

“Before I got locked up, school wasn’t really important to me. I didn’t see myself graduating or anything like that,” Josefina says. “Eventually I saw the value and it made me want to pursue more than just a high school diploma. I want to go on and get my master’s in social work, too.”

One benefit Josefina did not expect from her college experience is that it has given her another way to bond with her older sister.

Her sister was in and out of college before Josefina became incarcerated. Watching Josefina inspired her sister to get more dedicated.

“I motivated her to go back to school and she’s also studying criminology and criminal justice,” Josefina says. “When we talk on the phone now, that’s all we talk about: school, classes, and what grades we got on assignments. It’s cool that we found another way to come together through all this.”

Christopher B.

Chris B. headshot

Degree: Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer, Treasure Valley Community College

Facility School: Trask River High School, Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility

A basketball injury inadvertently led Christopher to a potential career path.

After Christopher tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) during an OYA basketball tournament, he had to get several surgeries on his right knee and meet with an orthopedic surgeon — a type of medicine he didn’t know existed.

Today, he’s an associate degree-holder who is about to start taking courses in kinesiology at Oregon State University.

“Sport has been my focus for a long time, but I recognize I can’t play forever,” Christopher says. “I like the idea of having something where I can be in that field, even when I can’t play. If I learn about injuries and how they form, I can hopefully prevent another injury for myself and for others as well.”

Christopher says he didn’t care about school when he was younger, although he started to change that mindset in high school. Then, when he became incarcerated, he learned that OYA offered many educational opportunities.

“I realized I can just sit on my thumbs all day long, or I can get out better than when I came in,” he says. “That involved pushing my schooling, learning all these skills educationally and vocationally. Leaving (custody) without a diploma, especially from a facility where school is so readily accessible, you won’t look motivated. You won’t look like you want to progress. School has made my time worth something.”

Despite his injuries, Christopher has also remained a fixture in OYA sports. He’s often spotted on the court or the field at facility tournaments.

But it’s his dedication to school that he really hopes will inspire his peers.

“Whether you have a lot of time or not, school is important for everybody,” he says. “Not a lot of the younger guys coming in know how valuable school can be. If everybody were to just sit around playing video games or sports and that’s it, the whole society would fall apart. If they turn to school, they might find something they like and that’s important.”

Graduation caps photo by Satria Perkasa on Unsplash

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