by Carmen Anderson
We are brilliant; hang on our every word. We are regal; stand with us in our majesty. We are unique; inquire about our tattoos invisible and inked.
I walked through the doors of Portland State University in the spring of 2006. I recalled the countless days that I spent skipping high school in the 80’s, to hang out at PSU, with my college age friend. I was finally here a full-fledged college student, well on my way to my first Bachelors Degree. How would I fit in here among scholars, intellects, and so many young people? How would I be heard and make my mark here at PSU? I decided to “throw my hat in the ring” and challenge myself; if an opportunity presented I was going to try for it. The promise I made was that no matter what, I would be honest about who I am, and true to myself. I decided I was here to learn, and I was here to teach.
One of the first opportunities that presented was the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. I was a new Child and Family Studies major and we were introduced to the McNair Program right away. I was told about how important the program was when you are headed to graduate school or pursuing a doctorate. I balked, because I had just not even a year ago consented to continue my education into the University from Community College. How could people expect that I would be ready for graduate school, or a PhD? I was a student, but certainly not a scholar, and after all, I am first-generation. I began to envy the ambition of the students that were a part of that program, and I found myself visiting the McNair website more than once. Then I remembered my original challenge to “throw my hat in the ring.”
I decided to apply for the McNair Program in the fall of 2007. I did not think that I stood a chance, because McNair was for students that were above average. That program was for students that were excellent writers, skilled researchers, and on their way to a doctorate.
The email came one rainy Monday afternoon in February, “Congratulations, you have been chosen as a 2007 McNair Scholar.” On the day when I became a McNair Scholar, I was called upon for my story, and it was the story that I had been living and was ready to tell.
My next challenge was the Student Ambassador Program, and I remember looking at their photos in the hall of Smith. I thought, “Wow these students must really be special,” because they are dressed to impress and in prominent display. They represented to me what a “model student” would look like. The Ambassadors were right out in front, had their own uniform, were invited to important events, and had access to faculty and staff. Again, I found myself perusing the website more than once, and wondering how I would fit in that esteemed program. I mentioned to my professor Dr. Jana Meinhold, who was also my advisor that I would like to be a Student Ambassador. I also mentioned that I needed to be nominated for the program, and she was more than happy. “They probably will not want me,” I thought. I am non-traditional in every sense of the word; I am over thirty years of age, a black woman, a first generation college student, and more than a little overweight. The weight issue was not a concern for other opportunities, but for this program, you were seen, a lot!
I decided to apply for the Student Ambassador Program in the winter of 2007. I felt cynical about my application, at best, and I did not think I stood a chance. I could not believe I got as far as I did in the interview process. I had not seen Ambassadors that looked like me; how would I fit in? I have kids for goodness sakes, and I am sure that does not fit, their “mold.”
The phone message came that winter afternoon in March, “Congratulations, you have been chosen as a, 2007-2008 Student Ambassador.” On that day when I became a PSU Student Ambassador, I was called upon for my story and it was the story that I had been living, but hoping to tell.
Another opportunity presented by circumstance, when I took a class called, “Survey of Exceptional Learners.” This class was a requirement for the Child and Family Studies Program, and I did not want to take it. It surveyed children with developmental disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, head injuries, and Autism. I found myself quietly emotional in this class when we would watch footage of white parents describing their life with their disabled child. I did not see myself, although my child was “exceptional.” The families were always two parent, well to do, and able to afford the finest interventions and education. I would wonder to myself how my story compared. I am a single parent, poor, living in low-income housing, who happens to have an Autistic child. I decided to approach my professor and tell her that I was the mother of an “exceptional” child that I had been raising alone since his birth in 1990.
My professor asked me to speak to the class about raising my son, and I agreed. I had never spoke on the matter to anyone; not even my family. I stood before my class and told them the story of my teenage pregnancy that produced one beautiful Autistic child. Much to my surprise, I started to cry and my professor supported me, and encouraged me to go on.
At the end of class, my professor Dr. Jeannie Edwards took my hand and asked me if she could call on me again to speak in class. I have now shared my story with her class five times, because she has asked me back every term. When my professor took my hand that day after class, I was called upon for my story and it was the story that only I could tell.
As a student at Portland State University I have been accepted, invited, and congratulated more than anytime in my life, or my story. When you ask how PSU has supported the status of women through their core commitment of diversity, I say they call upon women for their stories. At PSU, you are not just called upon, but invited to talk loud and draw a crowd. When a woman is called upon to share her story, she is being blessed to do the world a service. When a woman is called upon for her story, she has the power to teach, share, heal, love, empower, and incite thoughts and movement.
PSU calls for the stories of women that are docile and defiant, violent and peaceful, and militant and religious. PSU places women in campus leadership and decision-making; women are placed in the front for all to see, and the back for strength, knowledge, and support. Our diversity, acted out in chunky combat boots and stiletto steppers is respected and celebrated. Our beauty, decorated in lip rings and strings of pearls, is more than a notion. Most of all the impact and side effects of our stories are encouraged and validated in forms of invitations and congratulation letters; I have been embraced in a manner never expected. They called upon me for my story, because it is the story Portland State University had been waiting to hear.
Thank you Portland State University for calling upon women for their stories, and allowing them to grow, heal, and connect.