Salena Grayson was a high school student with a problem.
A bright and capable young woman, the Southeast Portland resident didn’t feel challenged enough by her classes and was beginning to feel dangerously unmotivated. She toyed with the idea of dropping out of school. Fortunately, the right opportunity came along at the right time – the Middle College program at Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus.
“The Middle College kept me out of trouble,” said Grayson. “I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know when I wanted to start or what I needed to do.
“Now I can’t quit college,” she added with a smile.
For several years now, the Middle College, a partnership between PCC and Portland Public Schools, has served as a bridge between talented young people and the world of higher education. The program allows students from Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools to take college classes – and earn college credit – alongside regular PCC students. And it’s free: the program covers the cost of books, tuition, and fees for its participants.
For Grayson – now a first-year PCC student – and many students like her, the Middle College has provided an important outlet for their considerable academic talents. But that’s just the beginning of its benefits. While the program provides students with valuable exposure to the rigors of college studies, it also serves a more profound – and more subtle – purpose: it helps instill the belief that higher education is a real and attainable possibility.
“Middle College gave me a new outlook in many ways,” said Sydney Melson, a Jefferson High School senior now in her second year with the program and intends to study economics next year at the University of Oregon. “I realized that I could go to college and do the work. It’s a great program. It has let me see what I’m getting into, and helped me understand what it takes to be successful.”
Many Middle College participants are the first members of their families to go to college. When someone is completely new to the world of higher education, minor hurdles – like the admissions, placement and registration processes, for example – can seem like major obstacles. The program helps to smooth the way for its students by walking them through these initial steps and supporting them once they’re enrolled in classes. The benefit of this aspect of the program just can’t be overestimated, said Damon Hickok, coordinator of the Middle College
“College can be really intimidating for people who have never been there before,” Hickok explained. “For kids who are the first in their families to go to college, it can be even tougher. We help them by explaining how to apply, showing them when and where to take the placement test, and recommending certain classes and instructors to them. We try to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”
The program also encourages its students to succeed by connecting them directly with the student support services available to them at Cascade Campus, such as tutoring services in the campus’ Learning Center. Hickok also makes sure each PCC instructor knows before the start of each academic term that he or she will have Middle College students in class. Participants also have access to computers, a lending library and other services in the Middle College office.
For all intents and purposes, though, Middle College participants are PCC students like any others. Which is very much the point.
“The Middle College showed me my ability to do high-level work,” said Eli Gilbert, a Roosevelt graduate who is now a first-year PCC student and a first-generation college student. “It explained so much to me about college. I really had no idea what I was in for, but once I realized that I was sitting in class with real college students, I knew I could do the work.
“It’s the best program ever,” continued Gilbert, who intends to study computer engineering at either Oregon State University or Portland State University – a plan that received a boost recently when he was awarded a Marion Mock Memorial Fund scholarship. “Without Middle College, I wouldn’t be on track to get my degree. I owe them a lot.”