Jessica Lam, a junior at Franklin High School who’s grown up in less than easy circumstance, knows all about the financial cliffs looming before kids seeking a college education. Yet she has a hope, and a plan, for a career in veterinary medicine that will require at least a four-year degree.
So is the idea of college, with ever-soaring tuition levels and student debt weighing on survivors like the concrete shoes of old gangster movies, exciting or intimidating to her?
Lam refuses the bait.
“I just know,” she says quietly, “I’ve got to do it.”
Lam was speaking at the 2015 NW Youth Career Expo, mounted last week at the Oregon Convention Center by the Portland Workforce Alliance. In a body blow to everything you think you know about millennials, 7,000 high school students got up early to visit with 130 employers and educational programs, and more than 1,000 had signed up for mock job interviews, to be asked where they saw themselves in 10 years and to wonder how you got to be the person asking the questions.
They surged around the ballroom level of the convention center, clustering at the Nike and Adidas booths and at a complex of booths representing opportunities in the construction industry. If there was more blue and pink hair than you might remember, and if they seemed unable to function without their iPhones immediately to hand, the event was a recognizable version of the endless quest of young people to find a place in the world – with the stakes raised by a suspicion that in the 21st century, the hurdles may be higher, and the margin for error narrower than a tablet computer screen.
“It was remarkable how driven they were, how many opportunities they’d taken advantage of,” commented Kate Kinder, Career Pathway manager at Portland Community College, praising the Portland Workforce Alliance effort. “I’ve been struck continuously by the drive of the students in our programs.”
Kinder was among the early-rising adults sitting at scores of table for the event’s kick-off breakfast, where students listened to Gov. Kate Brown, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith work to sound encouraging while admitting that the students really could be getting some more support from, well, adults. Brown promised them that the budget she was supporting included $40 million for career and technical education, and admitted the need to expand the state’s Oregon Opportunity Grant college scholarship program.
At one table, Jessica Lam sat with Benson seniors Jesse Hague and Anna Kalamafoni, both looking to become nurses and already out working in patient treatment as part of the Benson health care program. They know the distance from where they are to where they want to be, and that they’re not exactly working off a head start; as Kalamafoni said, the goal is to “try to do better than my mom did.”
Looking to college, none of them expect to get their bachelor’s degree in Oregon, which should already set off a state alarm – there’s a good chance students going elsewhere for college won’t come back, and these are kids that any state should want to build walls to keep in.
But with different career hopes and different states in their long-term expectations, all three plan to begin at PCC.
At the Youth Career Expo, there were multiple community college booths speckled among the employers, reflecting the colleges’ role as take-off spots not only for careers but for four-year degrees; increasing proportions of Oregon university graduates began with two-year transcripts. “It isn’t four-year plans or community college,” said Kinder about the students she encountered. “It’s both.”
As community college enrollments have swollen, including both students seeking to get early college requirements out of the way more cheaply to those seeking careers as welders or dental hygienists, state funding hasn’t exactly kept up. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, points out that PCC in particular, under an enrollment cap that it’s long since shot past, has been especially shortchanged.
You could say that, like the rest of the system, it’s suffering for its success.
In Salem, community colleges are seeking $550 million for the next two years, which would get them, like the universities, not quite to where they were in 2007.
Currently, the Ways and Means co-chairs’ budget has them at $535 million, with a pledge to add $15 million if the money becomes available.
In this situation, the Legislature might consider the insight of Jessica Lam:
It’s simpler when you know you’ve got to do it.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 3/25/15.