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For PCC graduation speaker, her college sequel is really good

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When Joyce McNair of Beaverton was last in college at California State University-Los Angeles as a 17-year-old, she had a fateful meeting with a fellow student in her sociology class. McNair took the gray-haired, bright blue-eyed woman to coffee and sat her down to inquire about a question she wanted answered.

“I asked her, ‘How old are you if you don’t mind me asking?’” McNair recalled. “She said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m 95.’ I was like ‘Wow.’ So my next question was, ‘Why are you still in school?’”

“I’m supposed to inspire someone who is struggling with going back to school. I want them to look at me, with my disabilities and who I am, that it works," said Joyce McNair, 2011 PCC graduation speaker.

She grabbed McNair’s arm and became quite serious.

“She said, ‘You are never too old to learn,’” McNair remembered. “It’s been 30 years since that day, but I’ve never forgotten her words.”

McNair, now 48, has taken the words to heart, returning to college for a second time. The mother of three is graduating from Portland Community College with an associate’s degree with an emphasis on social psychology and plans to transfer to Portland State University this fall. Her story is of an older returning student, stricken by the housing collapse (her mortgage company had to be shuttered a few year ago), and picking herself up to get the degree she needs to compete in the workplace.

“Pretty sure I’m going to cry,” McNair said of graduation. “I’m pretty passionate about it. But that’s okay.”

Using those words to get a degree and overcome barriers

Using what the 95-year-old told her 30 years ago, McNair rebounded from her company’s demise, a divorce and being rejected for a management job with an international food and beverage company because she didn’t have a college degree.

“That put a fire beneath me,” McNair said of the job rejection.

That fire led her to enroll at PCC’s Rock Creek Campus. But it wouldn’t be easy. McNair suffers from ADHD and dyslexia so her PCC advisors told her to take it easy by going part-time as she works full-time at a food manufacturing plant, making cookies. But she was going to have none of that.

McNair spreads the love of PCC. She takes a bundle of the class credit schedules to her factory job every term so her coworkers can find classes that might lead to a new career.

“I’m determined and that’s the thing I think makes a difference,” McNair said.

Not every class agreed with her. She struggled with math and geology, for example, but because of that determination, she sought out help from fellow students and instructors like Timothy Hinkel (math) and Chris Bailey (geology).

“I never felt like they didn’t care and were teaching to get a paycheck,” explained McNair, who has four grandchildren. “I felt like they were genuinely concerned about my education. They all were willing to help and go that extra mile.

“There were days I wanted to quit,” she added. “I was just frustrated. I was so out of the loop from studying. I was working full time and mandatory overtime hours. (Chris) helped me prioritize what was important. I ended up getting an ‘A’ in his class.”

McNair hopes to inspire those who struggle with college

McNair plans to work as a psychologist when she’s through getting her degrees. She wants to help people, one-on-one, which she does now at work in her own way. She has a habit of leaving PCC class schedules out at work in the break room. When she started college again, her only copy kept disappearing and soon realized her coworkers wanted to explore furthering their education, too. Now, every term, she brings a stack of schedules to work.

“I’m supposed to inspire someone who is struggling with going back to school,” she said of her speech. “I want them to look at me, with my disabilities and who I am, that it works. I’m so happy. Forget the degree, the happiness is way, way more important than the degree.”

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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