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Recent graduate Frances Fagan is in a league of her own
Photos and Story by James Hill
It didn’t rise to the level of NBA star LeBron James in terms of notoriety, but Portland Community College’s own version of “The Decision” was no less fascinating and impactful for those who know Frances Fagan.
The 2015 PCC graduate may not be taking her talents to South Beach, but rather to New Haven to pursue her undergraduate degree at Yale University. Fagan, who began at PCC taking Transitions Program classes and was a student in the Sylvania Campus’ Trio-funded Roots Program for low-income, first-generation students, had been mulling Mount Holyoke College, Cornell and Yale as possible transfer destinations. However, it was Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program that won her over to further her interest in refugee camp designs and how they relate to common library infrastructures.
“It was an intense decision for me,” Fagan admitted. “But ultimately I found I liked the idea of going into this program. The staff is so incredibly diverse and I feel that the creative cultural element would make me stronger as I go into more focused research. It seemed like a broader and richer experience altogether. It will support and add to research I’ve begun in my honors capstone project at PCC.”
But Cornell didn’t completely lose out in “The Decision” like Cleveland did back in 2010 to Miami with LeBron. Fagan said she wants to get her graduate degree in Organizational Behavior through Cornell’s International Labor and Relations School when she finishes with her undergraduate work at Yale. So, really, everyone wins.
“I’m pretty excited about the whole thing, surreal as it feels at the moment,” she said.
A Self-Taught Snowboarder
It’s a 180-degree turnabout for a woman born in Hood River and who would move around a number of times with her family within Bohemian communes, shuffling between several schools by the time she was in middle school. Fagan said she compensated for the lack of classroom structure by reading extensively and pursuing her own curiosities in the arts and sciences. She believed that a traditional, formal education wasn’t necessary to succeed.
“Throughout my childhood when I asked a question I was told to look it up,” said Fagan, who attended free lectures at local colleges and universities on subjects that interested her. “I never thought a formal education was for me, that it was affordable, or even a possibility for me.”
In 2005, a personal challenge led to her realizing she needed structured schooling. Fagan had built a cool career as a Level 3 snowboard instructor and was working seasonally for Mt. Hood Meadows. She even gained international certification and coached in Austria and Germany. However, she returned to Portland to re-career and train to become a tattoo artist.
Medical emergency changes everything
But her career change had to be put on hold after suffering seizures. A subsequent scan of her head revealed that she had brain cancer and was rushed into surgery to remove a massive tumor.
“Within a month I had to have three surgeries,” Fagan said. “It totally changed my life. I was paralyzed on half of my body and I had to go through radiation treatments. I had to depend on other people like I hadn’t before and I couldn’t work anymore. So, I began volunteering much more actively in an environment that was safe and at a my own pace.”
She volunteered at several non-profit organizations, including KBOO radio and Portland Community Media, producing art-oriented multimedia projects for local cable access TV. As Fagan recovered from cancer she gained new skills by getting out of her comfort zone such as learning how to work in a team environment and using technical equipment.
In the summer of 2013, she organized a large production for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Arts Festival and although the experience was awesome she admits there were some things she was unprepared for. The adversity made her feel like there were things she needed to learn outside of what she was interested in. It caused her to rethink her self-guided education and to yearn for a deeper understanding of the world.
Back to Her Future
In the winter of 2013, Frances Fagan became a college student at Portland Community College. She had started at PCC before, but lasted a term and just walked away from her classes to work on Mt. Hood during a good snow season not realizing she would get poor grades. On her second go around, Fagan applied for a PCC Foundation scholarship and got it. She said this was the biggest source of motivation for her to improve the 1.7 GPA that resulted from her first stint and prove to the donors who believed in her that she was a great investment.
“Someone out there, a complete stranger, had faith in me when I didn’t even have faith in myself,” Fagan said. “The scholarship allowed me time to focus on my studies, take a heavier class load and do as well as I possibly could in my coursework. It changed my life. It shaped how much confidence I had in my ability and showed me that it was possible for me to succeed.”
Fans of Fagan
PCC instructor Bryan Hull, who teaches writing and English at Sylvania, was one of those support pillars for Fagan. In spring 2014, she enrolled in his Honor’s writing course. Hull said it was a smart and lively group, but while most students were busy hammering out papers the hour before they were due, Fagan was absorbed in all of the resources he presented in class.
“It was clear to me from the outset that she engaged with the material fully and completely,” he said. “She was open to digesting any and all ideas, or books and theories that I could toss at her.”
Phil Seder agreed. He never taught Fagan, but she sought him out about his theories on how colleges engage with their communities. He steered her to researching public libraries and how they are set up, which assisted in Fagan’s core studies on refugee camps. She even served on a committee for the PCC Library to increase student engagement in library services and was a research assistant for the campus’ Multicultural Center.
“What ensued was an 18-month rambling conversation that spanned architecture, group dynamics, the future of labor, the nature of bureaucracy and gender equality,” Seder remembered. “Frances had perhaps the most open and inquiring mind I have encountered.”
Making Her Mark at PCC
Thanks to those Transitions classes when she first started and the hours of tutoring and counseling she got from the ROOTS Program, Fagan excelled at college. She would earn a permanent spot on PCC’s Honors List with straight A’s (with one B in trigonometry) and a 3.9 GPA. The student who once believed college wasn’t for her was selected as a Student Ambassador to represent the student voice at college events in the community. And a year after starting her classes, Fagan earned the 2014-15 Rose Scholarship, the PCC Foundation’s most prestigious scholarship honor, in recognition of her academic achievements.
It seems LeBron James has got nothing on Frances Fagan.“Frances is a multi-talented and inspiring student,” said Sara Neill, a student resource specialist and advisor in the Roots Program. “She has also been a great inspiration to other ROOTS and Honors students at Sylvania, who know her and have realized from Frances that it is possible to go from PCC to the college of their dreams.”