Nam Le is a PSU student working toward his bachelor’s in business, with a concentration in marketing. Nam is originally from Saigon, Vietnam. He came to Portland State as a freshman student. Here’s his story:
“I first found out about PSU by signing up for a campus tour with my high school. At first, I didn’t know anything about PSU, and I wasn’t considering applying here. But then I learned about PSU’s history and amazing programs. I was attracted to the business program because I learned about how PSU alumni Carolyn Davidson invented the Nike swoosh. I finally made the decision to go into PSU’s business program because it’s the best in Oregon. As a first-generation college student, and someone who is new to American culture, it was important for me to choose a college that has everything a student like me needs, including affordable tuition and a great location in downtown Portland.
I’ve already learned a lot. My favorite classes have been Professional Selling and Business Communication. I learned how to write professional emails and communicate effectively within a team.
I got a lot of support from my professors. Dean Erica Wagner was not as strict and hard on us students as I expected. She was actually really caring and became like a second mother. Professor Daniel Wong was also a mentor to me. He’s a great role model for first-generation college students.
I love all the food places around campus. Phat Cart has the best orange chicken bento, and there are lots of Thai places with delicious Pad Thai. I decompress by getting food from the food carts and reading in the rooftop terraces around the Urban Center. When I want to study, I go to the International Lounge, which is part of the International Student Services.
I lived in campus housing for my first three years so I could be close to the unique community on PSU’s campus. Living on campus helped me grow my connections and adapt to American culture. It also gave me easy access to unlimited on-campus events.
Through all the challenges, I’ve been developing into the person I strove to become. My plan after graduation is to work in the sales and marketing field in Portland. I have one piece of advice for students applying for college: College is an investment. Invest in yourself.”
Sebastian is a junior in PSU’s School of Film. He came to PSU as an IB international student from Mozambique. Here’s what he has to say about his journey to becoming a student at PSU:
“Choosing where to go to college can be extremely daunting. For us international students, having to do it from thousands of miles away can make the entire process much more stressful. When my time came to apply to colleges, I considered all options: big city or small town, large university or small college. When I found Portland State University online, it seemed like that perfect balance of what I wanted for my college experience. Situated in the middle of downtown Portland and surrounded by luscious forests, PSU offers the best of both worlds.
When considering Portland State, whatever questions I had about the campus, city or academics were answered quickly. PSU admissions staff and the Film department were always available to answer my questions in a personalized manner. Unlike the other universities I was considering, my correspondence with PSU actually gave me a good idea of what my college experience was going to be like. Even before I was admitted, I felt valued at Portland State.
Today, I am almost halfway done with my undergraduate degree. I feel settled into a diverse community of international and domestic students alike. My classes at PSU have felt like progress towards a career in the film industry. I am learning useful skills for film production and theoretical writing, as well as developing a strong personal style, which I’m conveying through my portfolio of film and video work.
Living in Portland is a breeze! Portlanders on and off campus are welcoming to everyone, and they always share a smile. Leaving the hustle and bustle of the city is as easy as a 10 minute train ride, where I can unwind in vast urban parks. Food carts and restaurants, with all types of cuisines, are situated all over the city.There is never a shortage of things to do in Portland!”
For many people, getting a degree can seem just out of reach. This can be especially true for low-income, immigrant and first-generation college students.
Nabin Dhimal fits all of these descriptions. Despite many challenges, he graduated from Portland State in 2018, with a degree in Social Science and a double minor in Sociology and Psychology. But that wasn’t enough for Nabin—he’s currently pursuing a Master’s at PSU in Educational Leadership and Policy through the College of Education.
Nabin was just one of more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese living in refugee camps in Nepal. The “One Nation, One People” policy in Bhutan forced the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas to dress, speak and act like the majority Drukpas culture. Lhotshampas who protested this ethnic cleansing were imprisoned and tortured. Eventually, the majority of Lhotshampas were forced out of Bhutan into Nepal, and Nabin’s family was part of that group.
“My family lived in Bhutan for six generations,” says Nabin. “The government would select Lhotshampas to leave, accusing them, saying they weren’t Bhutanese, in order to split up families. My father was selected. If you refused to leave, they would attack or imprison you, sometimes even burn your house down. My whole family fled together.”
The Nepali government refused to integrate the Lhotshampas and allow them to work, so they were stuck living in a refugee camp for 18 years. Nabin was born in that camp. “I was fortunate because we were not bombed or shot at in the refugee camp, but there were very few resources to go around. We had no documents to work and no money. At six, I started working as a cashier in a food truck to make enough money to buy my own school supplies and watch DVDs on a small battery-powered TV.”
One of Nabin’s biggest joys growing up was school. “When I was five, I followed my siblings to school. I wanted to go to school so bad. My uncle broke the law by telling the school I was a year older so I could go. I loved learning, but there were few resources or qualified teachers. There were 50-60 students in each class, and we only had outdated, used textbooks. There were no opportunities for you to pursue a higher education.”
To escape these circumstances, Nabin and his family emigrated in 2008 with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the leading inter-governmental organization that helps migrants in need. IOM placed Nabin and his family in the United States, and they have lived in Oregon since. “Coming to the U.S. was hard at first. We didn’t know any Nepali people in Portland, and my extended family was placed in other states and countries. We used to be only five minutes away. Life is much easier for people who have an education, especially for people living in the United States—you can learn the language and get good jobs.”
“School is a privilege. I wanted to break the cycle of poverty and set an example for people in my community by earning a degree.”
In high school, Nabin started thinking about how he could make this happen, but finding the support he needed was difficult. “I think people expected me to go to community college because of negative perceptions of English language learners. I didn’t want to go far from home, so I could still support my family. My Speech and Debate coach, Patrick Gonzales, saw I had potential and encouraged me to apply to PSU.”
But paying for college was still a major concern for Nabin. He applied for the Diversity Scholarship, a program that promotes diversity and student participation at PSU. This scholarship awards a renewable tuition remission to students in financial need from diverse backgrounds. Not only did the scholarship help him afford to go to school full time but it got him involved with people from other cultures and marginalized communities.
Portland State offers many other Multicultural Retention Services for students like Nabin to help them achieve their goals. “TRIO reached out to me the summer before school started. They let me know about the programs and resources available. I took Summer Bridge, a class for TRIO students before the term starts. I learned how to find classrooms on campus, use the PSU Library and navigate D2L, PSU’s online learning platform,” says Nabin. TRIO is a program that provides educational opportunities to help students overcome barriers to higher education, like ethnic background or economic circumstance.
TRIO was the first place Nabin went when he was struggling with classes. “Andrea Griggs, my TRIO advisor, connected me to academic support on campus. But she totally changed my path when she helped me realize I needed to change my major. I wanted a major that would allow me to fight for equity and uplift others in underserved communities. I decided a degree in Social Sciences was the right path.”
Though he didn’t realize it at first, the challenging ideas he was exposed to in his Freshman Inquiry (FRINQ) class would change his career goals. “I took a race and social justice themed FRINQ class, and it ended up being my favorite class. It made me aware of a lot of systemic issues.” Freshman and Sophomore Inquiry classes are part of PSU’s unique University Studies program, which uses theme-based classes and an interdisciplinary approach to get students involved with peers and the larger Portland community.
It didn’t take long for Nabin to be a force for positive change.
Nabin began working as a Peer Mentor in the Diversity Scholarship program, serving as a resource for other students. He realized that if he was going to make getting an education more equitable, he needed to earn a graduate degree. With the support of TRIO, his advisor and faculty, Nabin applied to PSU’s Educational Leadership & Policy program. Now, he’s working toward his Master’s degree and is specializing in Leadership for Sustainability Education.
Nabin helps prospective international students in PSU’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. He’s also a Career Coach for NW Promise at IRCO, a nonprofit immigrant and refugee organization dedicated helping underserved students earn college credit and get into high-paying careers.
Nabin’s next goal is to earn a Ph.D and work in an educational nonprofit, where he can challenge policies to be more equitable. “I want to be that lens, looking at the education system to see if it’s serving different populations of students as well as it should.”
Nabin has one important piece of advice for low-income, immigrant and first-generation students: “Find out what resources are available to you and use them. PSU has a diverse student body and wants to make getting a degree accessible to everyone. The more people from diverse backgrounds successfully completing college means more influence to make the policy changes that will better serve those populations.”
For anyone coming to college for the first time, the task of making friends and joining a community can be daunting. This is especially true for students coming from outside the continental U.S., who may not know a single person when first arriving on campus.
“Oh yeah, it can be super intimidating,” says Jovi Valencia, a senior Philosophy major from Waimea, Hawaii. “However,” he adds, “don’t let that stop you from reaching out. Everyone on campus is so welcoming and open.”
Jovi is speaking from experience. When he first got to campus he was reticent to attend Pacific Islander Club(PIC) events, but after his first experience he wished that he had meet up with the Club sooner.
“At first I didn’t go, but after a while I just came and hung out and everyone was super welcoming.” Now, in his final year at PSU, Jovi is on the Board of PIC and supports many different cultural centers on campus by attending events and meetups.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from if you want to get involved with a cultural club or organization on campus. If you click, you click, it’s that simple.”
The Cultural Resource Centers on campus serve not only as a place where students can interact with their peers, but also as a platform to help inform the population on campus about social issues that are important to each specific organization.
“It’s definitely about community awareness. Whether it be through talks, panels or culture shows, each club is passionate about letting people know about what’s important to them and their culture.”
One such piece of community awareness is coming up soon. The Pacific Islander’s Club, of which Jovi is a member, is putting on its Lu’au this Saturday, an annual tradition which is in its 15th year.
“It’s going to be great and is definitely our biggest event of the year. There’s gonna be lots of representation from many different cultures along the Pacific Rim, including lots of traditional dance, song, and good food.”
Jovi’s advice to students looking to get involved?
“Just come and hang out, you’re sure to find a group that you connect with. There really is something for everybody here, regardless of where you’re from.”
My time here at PSU has become an incredibly inspiring journey. I have taken the school’s motto, “Let Knowledge Serve the City” and made it my own. Walking on campus one day, I distinctly remember seeing the motto emblazoned on the sky bridge and thinking how incredibly lucky I am. How lucky I am to find myself at such an inclusive and supportive community and to attend a college that has connected me with employers and prepared me for my career.
When I started this journey three years ago, I was a non-traditional international student and English was not my first language. To save the money necessary to come to the U.S. and study for nine months, I had worked multiple jobs for five years. A feeling of pure panic welled up after about six months of being here and I wondered how in the world I was going to come up with enough money to stay at PSU and graduate with a degree.
Luckily, through this difficult time, a community of faculty, mentors and friends supported me and helped me find my way. Over time, I got to know PSU by serving as the coordinator of the International Women’s Group and mentoring freshman students as part of the University Studies program. This community has been incredibly supportive and I’ve found friends for life. I’ve also really enjoyed taking advantage of the incredible opportunities that have been offered to me. Through mentorship programs to networking events, PSU has prepared me to be an incredible professional. I graduated on Sunday with a job offer and an offer to start in PSU’s prestigious Master of Science of Financial Analysis program in the Fall.
My advice for students is to take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way. College is a great time to network and conduct informational interviews with employees from companies you are interested in working for. Personally, I’ve had great opportunities at PSU to grow and learn outside the classroom. One of my most memorable experiences is speaking at the 2015 Simon Benson Awards Dinner and to thank all of the kind people who support scholarships and students like me. It was my first time speaking in front of such a large crowd, more than 1200 people were there! I was honored to be able to thank scholarship donors in person.
No other university works so hard to connect students with each other, staff, faculty, and employers as PSU does. I have found a family and a future here. I think this applies to many other graduates as well. When you graduate you will be able to look around at all the incredible people you’re surrounded by right now, think of how many friendships you’ll create, the love you will find and or the career you will start, all here at PSU.