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Nothing Short of a Miracle
Photos and Story by Susan Hereford
It was an act of courage, followed by a trip to PCC, that turned Harris’ life around.
How Sheryl Harris Transformed Her Life
By Bonnie Darves
Sheryl Harris has had more than her share of struggles. Now it appears she will have her due measure of successes.
The Aloha resident and single mother of four entered Portland State University’s pre-med program last month, after receiving a $10,000 scholarship to help her meet expenses. Yet three years ago she didn’t even have a high school diploma.
It was an act of courage, followed by a trip to PCC, that turned Harris’ life around. In 1992, she found the strength to leave a 10-year abusive relationship. Even before Harris found herself in a bad marriage, she was no stranger to sorrow. As a young girl she had nursed her mother through a terminal illness for five years, and later lost two of her brothers to suicide.
Although Harris felt liberated by leaving the relationship, she knew that self-sufficiency would be an elusive goal without even a high school degree and with four children under the age of 10. So she decided she needed to get an education.
Harris is somewhat petite, yet there’s a pride in her carriage that makes her seem taller. Her pale eyes reflect the journey she has made: darkening when she recalls the hard years, fairly dancing when she talks about what’s ahead.
“I had somehow found the courage to get out, to fight the fear, but I was worried about the future,” Harris said. “It was sort of a reality check when I considered that, with no education, the only job I could get would just pay my child care expenses.
“The children’s father had agreed to pay child support, but I didn’t want to remain dependent on the very person who had abused me. I realized that my next step had to be going to school.”
That next step found its form in PCC’s New Directions, a program for displaced homemakers and single parents. Through that program, and with strong support from her friends, her church congregation and her PCC counselors, Harris began to believe — for the first time in many years — that she could shape her destiny. She learned that she had a remarkable aptitude for math and science, and she developed the resolve and the coping tools to ensure she wouldn’t end up in another bad relationship.
Once she had established her new direction, Harris was almost unstoppable. She not only earned her GED, she took honors in the process — even though she hadn’t been to school in 15 years.
When she began taking courses at PCC she consistently earned top marks, making the Dean’s list twice. In her nonexistent spare time, she helped launch the Rock Creek Campus chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society, and served as its president. Harris has also been an active volunteer in the community and on campus, where she has served as a mentor to students who have dropped out of high school and want to earn their GEDs.
The crowning achievement of her PCC career was receiving the $10,000 Hites Family Foundation scholarship, given to only two community colleges in the country each year. The college awards the scholarship to an outstanding student for continued study at a four-year institution.
Harris is clearly proud of her achievements, and at times a little amazed at what the last few years have brought. She says the transformation of her life is nothing short of “a miracle,” and is quick to point out that she didn’t make the journey alone.
“When I think about the many people who gave me support, without me asking, I realize that there’s a message in that: Find the courage to do what you need to do, and the help will be there,” she said. “God was looking out for me, and I know I’m going in the right direction because there have been no roadblocks.”
Harris intends to return in kind the many favors, the offers of help, the support of those who lent their shoulders to lighten her burden during the toughest times, when she becomes a doctor.
“I feel that what they have given me I will be able to give back to others,” she said.
Her career plans include practicing rural medicine in the old-fashioned way — making house calls and “practicing what she preaches.” Her experiences growing up on a farm in a small Pennsylvania town, Harris says, have helped prepare her for that challenge. And her experiences of recent years have equipped her for whatever transpires between now and then.
“It seems like everything is falling into place . . . like my life is full of possibility. My sense now is that whatever happens, I’ll make it work.”