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Alonso's success goes through Harvard

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From her humble beginnings in Woodburn and Clackamas to Portland Community College and now going to Harvard, Teresa Alonso is making a name for herself.

The director of the College Assistance Migrant Program at PCC’s Rock Creek Campus on N.W. Springville Road is one of 22 women nationwide who have been awarded a scholarship by the National Hispana Leadership Institute’s Executive Leadership Program. The program provides a comprehensive four-week training to prepare Hispanic community leaders for positions that impact national public policy.

In addition to trainings in California and Washington, D.C., Alonso will attend a weeklong class in “Effecting Change Through Public Policy and Management” at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Not bad for a person who was expected to give up education in the eighth grade to work at a local nursery.

“I often think about what my life would have been, had my family not come to this country,” said Alonso, a graduate of Western Oregon University and a Southeast Portland resident. “I am very grateful that my parents wanted their children to have opportunities they did not have and were willing to make this huge transition. It has been an amazing journey, but I give my parents credit for teaching me excellent work ethics and about perseverance.”

Alonso spent the first four years of her life in a house without plumbing in San Jeronimo, Mexico. When her family immigrated to Clackamas, they lived in a mobile home with another family before moving months later to Woodburn. By the age of 10, Alonso was juggling school, sports, work and the care of her younger siblings.

“I admire the courage they had as young parents when they decided to move their family here from Mexico without speaking the language,” Alonso said. “They gave me and my younger brothers and sisters an opportunity to have a better life than what they had growing up.”

With the family’s financial situation dependent on the seasonal work, Alonso saw education as the antidote to poverty. Her parents remained unconvinced even as she worked through a mentoring program at Oregon State University when she was in the seventh and eighth grades. The college students from the program worked with Woodburn Middle School to help them learn about higher education and how to prepare for it. Thanks to the mentors, Alonso thought she could have a chance to succeed at college.

“I realized it was a possibility for me to some day have a degree in anything that I wanted to do,” Alonso said. “My mentor and other college students spoke to my mother about my potential and the importance of a degree. Though all this information was new to my mom, she realized that it was possible for me. After that day, my mother became my biggest advocate in regards to my education with my very traditional father.”

But after her middle school graduation, her father assumed she was done with school and should go and work with her mother at the nursery potting plants.

“I was devastated because I really wanted to continue my education,” Alonso recalled. “My mother knew how to advocate for me and convinced my father that I still needed to finish high school and, God willing, college. My parents are very proud of how I turned out and what I have done with my life; they’re very supportive of the career that I have chosen because they know that it makes me happy.”

In 2007, Alonso was hired as director of the CAMP program after working with the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. The CAMP program supports documented students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds in their first year in college. She came on at the right time as the program had just been awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help further support services to 45 first-year migrant students.

“This was an amazing opportunity for me, a dream come true actually,” Alonso said. “I had always wanted to work in higher education and help create academic opportunities and nurture young people to their potential. However, the best aspect about this position was that I was going to be working with a population that was close to my heart; working with students who came from migrant backgrounds.”

In 2008, as the only Latina to receive a New Leadership Oregon Award, Alonso was encouraged to apply for the NHLI award and the PCC LEAD Program, which is led by PCC President Preston Pulliams. After a grueling and competitive application process, she was “excited and moved” when she got accepted to both leadership opportunities.

In addition to Harvard, Alonso was named to the “40 Under 40” list of young Oregon leaders by The Portland Business Journal. Alonso’s success has confirmed PCC as a resource for everyone in the community and that the college’s recent National Equity Award (by the Association of Community College Trustees) for creating access to people of all backgrounds was no fluke.

“(Teresa’s success) demonstrates that PCC is genuinely committed to diversity by providing support to its staff of color to pursue leadership opportunities at the national level,” said Narce Rodriguez, Rock Creek’s dean of Student Development.

Through her upcoming leadership training, Alonso hopes to create a challenge for every CAMP program in the nation to have a parent day similar to the one put on by her staff in February, which attracted close to 200 parents. With the support of her fellows at NHLI, she believes she can meet this goal.

“Coming from an extremely humble background, I realized at a very young age, about what an education could do for you,” she said. “Yes, I’ve come a long way from picking berries in the fields, to running a national college program. Yet there is so much more that I want to do, I’ve only just started.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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