Dreams Within Reach

Myesha Abdulrahman, BS ’12, will never forget the day her odds finally evened out. She was sitting with her mom in the counselor’s office at Jefferson High School in Portland, reading a letter from the University of Oregon. “I write to congratulate you on being selected as a PathwayOregon program participant,” it said. It took a minute for them to figure out what, exactly, PathwayOregon was all about. Then it clicked. Her dream—of a good education, a promising career—had suddenly gone from seemingly impossible to starting-right-now. She was going to college. “My mom cried,” she recalls. “It was a lot of pressure off of her. We were both just really happy, because I could go to school now.” 

Until then, the odds seemed stacked against her. Memories of growing up in northeast Portland include days without enough food. Power or water cut off because the bills were overdue. And stints of homelessness, when she stayed with friends, with family, or in shelters.

Abdulrahman was one of 415 Oregonians to join the first PathwayOregon freshman class in 2008. The program was created to improve graduation rates and reduce indebtedness for low-income students. UO administrators collaborated across offices to build a program designed not only to expand access to higher education, but also to foster student success. In addition to providing financial support, PathwayOregon seeks to boost academic performance, help students meet degree requirements, assist with major and career exploration, and provide personal support. It covers four years of tuition and, perhaps even more important, gives students the help they need to navigate the academic rigor of a university and the challenges of college life. For Abdulrahman, PathwayOregon removed barriers that stood between her and a bachelor’s degree—a goal she began striving for as a young teenager.

“My mom was a single mom and she struggled with three kids,” she recalls. “Nothing was easy for us. It didn’t seem as if college would be an opportunity for me because we couldn’t pay the bills. We couldn’t eat.” But she never gave up.

“I knew that being involved was going to open the door to scholarships,” she says. So she joined her high school cheer squad, worked hard enough to become an honor student, and ran for junior class president. She served as president of the National Honor Society and volunteered for an organization working on African American health issues. Her efforts paid off—she was accepted to the UO, and PathwayOregon ensured she could attend tuition-free. But starting college brought new challenges.

“My first term was so hard, I felt out of place. I took too many credits.” PathwayOregon advisors helped her figure out the right mix and balance of classes to take, and supported her as she learned to navigate college life. A psychology major, she considered a career in psychiatry, and then zeroed in on human resources.

Abdulrahman graduated in four years, earning a BS in psychology in 2012, and went on to earn a master of public administration in human resources management at Portland State University. Today, she’s a human resources coordinator at Reed College.

To be eligible for PathwayOregon, students must be Oregon residents, be accepted to the UO, have a 3.40 or better high school GPA, and qualify for the Federal Pell Grant, a program for undergraduate students with the highest financial need. While PathwayOregon provides financial support, it doesn’t work like a typical scholarship. It’s more like a promise. As long as students meet benchmarks for earning a degree in four years, the UO agrees to pay for the tuition and fees not covered by other grants, loans, and scholarships. The amount provided varies according to each student’s needs.

This September, the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization, released its report on graduation rates from more than 1,000 colleges and universities, following a 2007 cohort. They found a 14-point gap in six-year graduation rates between Pell and non-Pell students nationally. In other words, the percent of lower-income college students graduating in six years was 14 percentage points lower than their higher-income counterparts who don’t qualify for the Pell grant. At the UO, the gap was 13 percent.

But PathwayOregon is helping the UO beat those odds. For freshmen starting just a year later in 2008 (when the program launched) the graduation rate gap between PathwayOregon residents and all non-Pell resident students shrank to less than 2 percent. The four year graduation rate of PathwayOregon students is 44.7 percent higher than that of low-income students entering the UO before PathwayOregon began—an important accomplishment, because graduating earlier means less debt and more time building a career (and earning a paycheck).

* * *

PathwayOregon senior Ryan Sherrard, of Newberg, ducks inside a coffee shop, shaking October raindrops from his Seattle Seahawks cap. Despite the rain, he doesn’t use an umbrella to walk across campus. Inside, he strikes up an animated conversation with a fellow student about an economics class. They’re both undergraduates, but not exactly peers. Sherrard was a teaching assistant for the class—a rare responsibility for an undergraduate, and good prep work for graduate school.

“If my life were a ladder, a PhD is definitely one of the rungs,” he says. “I’m interested in policy consulting and other things, too. I really like the idea of academia, of doing research for a living.”

Maybe it’s his passion for economics, his easy confidence, or the way he seems to relish a healthy debate. But Sherrard is often mistaken for a faculty member. He has a good head start on an academic career. After graduating early (with a quadruple major in economics, history, Spanish, and Latin American studies, plus a minor in mathematics) he plans to start working full time as an economics researcher while he applies to graduate schools.

“Sometimes I’ll get students coming in and asking questions about how I got where I am, which is weird,” he acknowledges. “They don’t realize I’m a student as well. Or I’ll get ‘Professor Sherrard’ in an e-mail. I enjoy interacting with students. I think it’s fun. It’s also a really good way to learn the material.”

Sherrard’s mom works in elder care and his dad is a firefighter. Without PathwayOregon, he wouldn’t have attended the UO, he says. And he wouldn’t have been able to explore so many different subjects or study abroad in Mexico and Spain—life-transforming experiences.

“I’m very grateful. The cost is this many dollars, but the effect it’s had on me (and, I know, other people) is unquantifiable. That’s what an economist would say.”

This financial piece is one part of the equation, says PathwayOregon director Grant Schoonover. “It’s absolutely necessary to get them here. But once we’ve established access, we work on success. Every PathwayOregon student is, academically, very capable. But there are often obstacles getting in the way. When we can, we remove them. But more often we simply help students navigate a way forward.”

The PathwayOregon staff offers the support they need to succeed, says Schoonover, from their first orientation to career counseling as commencement draws near. This includes academic, personal, and financial advising. It also takes some creativity, and an effort to get to know each student and build strong personal ties.

* * *

For senior economics and Spanish major Guadelupe Quevedo, that extra help makes all the difference.

Like about 60 percent of PathwayOregon participants, Quevedo is a first-generation college student. “My parents have been very supportive and encouraging, but they don’t understand what college is like. They don’t have those tools, and they can’t help me academically. Pathway has been such an incredible support system. The staff has been willing to help me every step of the way.”

Sitting at a desk with two monitors, a set of walkie-talkies, and a stack of papers, Quevedo is at work in the Erb Memorial Union’s maintenance office—a job she’s held since her second week on campus. Working 20 hours a week and keeping up with school hasn’t been easy, but she takes it all in stride.

“The hardest part about college is balancing everything. I’ve worked all four years. And you try to be healthy and work out. I think time management is crucial.” It’s a skill PathwayOregon helped her improve. And she’s good at pacing herself. An avid runner, she’s training for her third half-marathon.

“I don’t even do it intentionally,” she says. “But I run almost perfect splits. Every single mile is exactly the same. I never go out with an intentional time that I want to run, but I just get in this groove where it feels like I’m working hard enough. I’m really good about just staying that way until I’m done.”

Quevedo is right on track to graduate this June, and she’s already putting out feelers for career possibilities, even looking into her dream job: working with the Federal Reserve in San Francisco. “A degree encompasses the American dream for me,” she says.

Quevedo’s parents are US citizens who immigrated from Mexico. Her dad works at a lumber mill and her mom does agricultural work for a winery. Neither attended school beyond the fifth grade, but they are working to obtain their GEDs. “This is all something my parents wanted to do but never could. That’s a big reason why I’m doing it,” Quevedo says. She also hopes it will inspire her two younger brothers. “I think there’s a barrier that has to be broken. Being the oldest, I took that leap of faith. I thought if I got through it, then my brothers would follow.”

* * *

Afternoon sunlight fills the atrium of the Lillis Business Complex—a building where senior Gage Cambon spends a lot of time these days, working on group projects for his business courses. He looks through taupe, horn-rimmed glasses at the swarm of students heading to class and reflects on what PathwayOregon means to him. First, there was the financial support. Without it, attending the UO would have been nearly impossible.

“I wasn’t expecting to actually go here, but I love the Ducks,” says the ardent sports fan from Portland. “It was a college I always dreamed of. When I got the award, I actually called PathwayOregon because I didn’t think it was real.”

Cambon says he’s taken full advantage of Pathway’s workshops, academic advising, and support—something he encourages freshmen to do—while working at his part-time job as a PathwayOregon peer advisor. But the program’s biggest impact, he says, has been more personal.

As a freshman, Cambon felt overwhelmed and isolated in an unfamiliar environment. Neither of his parents went to college. Nor did most of his high school friends. He was raised by a single mom who worked her way up to the vice president level at Washington Mutual, but then lost her job after the 2008 market crash. Without a degree, she struggled to find work. Cambon admires her strength and work ethic. But the experience taught him the value of a college degree.

PathwayOregon gave Cambon a community, connecting him with other first-generation college students. And an advisor helped him deal with anxiety and depression. “She was there for me,” he recalls. “Not just as an advisor, but as a friend. She told me everything was going to be all right.”

Today, things are looking up. Two weeks after he graduates this June, he’ll start as a buyer for Kroger in Portland—a job the business major landed through an internship.

* * *

Now in its eighth year, PathwayOregon welcomed more than 700 freshmen this fall—about a third more than last year, and its largest cohort ever. From the 415 students who started in 2008, the program has grown to currently serve more than 2,000.

A combination of efforts has enabled this growth. Through the Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships, the university has dedicated millions of dollars to support the program. This year saw an uptick in state support. And private gifts—including a $25 million endowment funded by Connie ’84 and Steve Ballmer last November—have helped increase the number of students served. The largest contribution for scholarships in UO history, the Ballmers’ gift reflects one of the core tenets of the university’s $2 billion fundraising campaign: increasing access for lower-income Oregonians. Pathway has also benefitted from increased funding from the Oregon state government this year, and the program helps the UO leverage Federal Pell Grant funding, combining these resources to make the most of each.

As funding and enrollment continue to grow, PathwayOregon is also earning top marks for retention and graduation rates. The university hopes to maintain this trajectory, improving the odds for larger numbers of lower-income Oregonians.

For Abdulrahman, a UO diploma opened the door to a brighter future. Today she’s enjoying the rewards and challenges of the first full-time job on her career path. And she has her sights set on the future, preparing for her professional in human resources certification exam.

“In 10 years or so, I’d like to be in a management position,” she says. “And top leadership when that’s appropriate—climbing up the ladder of a human resources career.”

Odds are, she’ll make it.

For more student stories, videos, and information on PathwayOregon, visit pathwayoregon.uoregon.edu/.

—By Ed Dorsch, University Communications