This year’s student speaker at PCC’s graduation ceremony has made the ultimate U-turn. Gibson, who is of mixed racial background (half Lakota Sioux and half Persian), faced many challenges during her childhood that saw her become a drug and alcohol addicted youth who had dropped out of three different high schools by the age of 16.
During the four years she has attended PCC, Gibson has been on the right track. She completed her high school diploma via Gateway to College, worked as student body president at the Cascade Campus, and earned her Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with flying colors.
"I was actually surprised," Gibson said of her speaker selection. "This is a great challenge for me. I am grateful and honored to be able to speak at graduation. I’ll try to convey that I’m just one of many stories. I feel other’s stories should be heard, too.
"It’s amazing how much I’ve learned and grown at PCC," she added. "There are so many great people here that are like my family. Now I have to leave and move on. It’s kind of scary. I sat down to write my speech and I started to cry. This has been a special year here."
Gibson’s story of perseverance and determination has made an impact on her instructors and supervisors. Gibson, who worked two jobs to support her family while she attended school full time, regularly volunteers her time in the community. She was the director of legislative affairs for ASPCC, diversity programmer for Cascade and student representative on the Educational Advisory Council.
As Cascade’s student government president, Gibson worked with 17 community college student body presidents in Salem and Washington, D.C. to represent more than 400,000 students statewide, campaigning on issues such as child care, student loans and education funding. She also worked tirelessly with the PCC Board of Directors to give a voice to students concerning the budget.
"It is difficult for me to imagine anyone, past or present, more worthy of this honor than Leah Gibson," said political science instructor Michael Sonnleitner of her speaking at graduation. "In so many ways, this inspirational person has become an articulate symbol of what may be possible for others to accomplish."
She also has been a leader in the community. She has been active with the United Tribes Club at PCC, the Portland Youth and Elders Council (associated with the Native American Youth Association), is a mentor for many Native-American high school students and participates in traditional Native ceremonies.
"The growth that I have seen in Leah over this time has been amazing," said Kendi Esary, student leadership coordinator at the Cascade Campus. "When Leah came to us, she was returning to school after time away and was unsure of her abilities. Three years later, Leah has proven to everyone that she comes into contact with just how ready she was to return to school, take on leadership roles and make significant, positive changes."
In person, it’s hard for anyone to suspect Gibson’s past troubles and problems. She’s very bright and articulate, determined to help fellow students and the community succeed. She can now reflect on where she’s been and where she’s going with a wise eye.
"When I see people on the streets doing stupid stuff or at parties drinking, I wouldn’t think of them as a future PCC graduation speaker," she said. "I think this is less about me speaking than where I was at. The impact of how I’ve changed is really what astounds me most."
This summer, Gibson will move from Portland and go to a place where she’ll be closer to her roots. Gibson plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in Lakota Studies and Journalism at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D.
"I know people say that I can go to a better school," she said. "But I want to learn my language, because language is culture. I want to be a journalist, maybe a photographer. If I could do that the rest of my life, I’d be so happy."