After graduating from Lincoln High School, Yesenia Herrera wasn’t sure how college fit into her life. Now, she can’t imagine it not fitting in.
The 20-year-old St. Johns resident was recently awarded the Community College Presidents’ Award at Washington State University-Vancouver where she’ll attend in the fall. This comes on the heels of being named the student speaker for the 2014 PCC commencement ceremony on Friday, June 13, in the Memorial Coliseum, 1401 N. Wheeler.
“I no longer have to put my dreams on hold,” Herrera said. “I’m very excited to be student speaker, which is a bit of an understatement; more like I’m ecstatic. I want to talk about my journey, how I got from here to PCC from high school and the difficulties I had to face in getting to college being a first-generation student. I want to encourage people to take chances and see the different opportunities that are out there.”
Herrera’s development in work ethic, professionalism and leadership skills has been impressive while studying at the Cascade Campus, 705 N. Killingsworth St. She served as Cascade’s campus director of student programs and then as its diversity retention coordinator for Latino students where she mentored and tutored fellow students. Heavily involved with student government, she helped organize clubs, program activities and direct social outings such as Cascade’s Dollar BBQ and the college’s End of Year Party.
And she’s contributed to lobbying efforts on behalf of the college in Washington D.C. Last spring break she joined other student leaders from PCC in lobbying for various issues that were near and dear to their hearts. Herrera was there to lobby for the restoration of funding for the federal Trio program, which serves low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities. The national Trio budget got slashed due to the sequestration cuts last year. At the Cascade Campus alone, she said around 2,000 students at Cascade are eligible for the campus’ ROOTS Program, but there are only 140 spots available due to the current funding level.
After President Barack Obama restored 95 percent of the funds, Herrera and fellow student Madeline Rider were able to join Trio advocates from around the nation in D.C. to fight for the remaining 5 percent to be restored, which it eventually was.
Kendi Esary, Cascade Campus’ student leadership coordinator, said Herrera has developed her public speaking skills, is civically engaged, supports the work of other students on campus, is a natural team builder and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty helping people out.
“Yesenia is an excellent facilitator and consensus builder,” Esary said. “Her organizational skills, excellent oral and written communication coupled with her work ethic and drive for excellence make her a superior student leader. She is a coveted member of campus and college committees and she is highly respected for her dedication, fairness, and effective representation of students on local and state levels. Her leadership style brings out the best in all of our students.”
Herrera moved to Oregon from California in 2008. She attended Lincoln High School and was active in extracurricular programs such as serving on Lincoln’s Rose Festival Court, working as a camp counselor in a gang prevention program and co-teaching a class on Dialectics Behavioral Therapy. After high school, she had hopes for the future, but didn’t know how to apply for scholarships or to colleges. She just was too shy to ask for help, Herrera said.
Her mother, Teofila Gonzalez, was taking English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at Cascade and would bring Herrera to campus all the time. One day, her mother was meeting with one of her instructors who noticed notes Herrera had taken. The instructor recommended she look into teaching as a career and recommended the Portland Teachers Program based at Cascade. Even though Herrera wasn’t accepted into the program, her mother wasn’t going to accept the possibility that Herrera wouldn’t attend college. So she took her daughter and son to the PCC registrar, who promptly enrolled them.
“I was too shy to ask for help and didn’t know who to ask for help,” Herrera said. “I would open up the different college websites and close them back up. Eventually, I just didn’t think it was a route for me. But my mom wasn’t taking no for an answer.”
Her mom is a good role model. She earned her GED and certificate in pharmacy technology at PCC and now works at Rite Aid. Quite a journey for a person who started at the college with no more than a sixth grade education earned in Mexico.
“She’s a very strong presence in my life,” Herrera said. “She is definitely what keeps me moving forward.”
Next fall, Herrera’s journey continues at WSU-Vancouver where she will major in psychology and minor in neuroscience, and hopes to eventually earn doctorates in those same fields. She wants to eventually work as a bilingual therapist for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. But for now she hopes fellow graduates will find inspiration in the obstacles she’s overcome and the success she has found along the way during her graduation speech.
“It has been a big struggle and I think I’m doing pretty well overcoming obstacles,” she said.