Returning Student’s Winding Journey to PSU

When most people picture the typical college student, they think of someone fresh out of high school, living in a dorm and working a part-time job. But for many students, the journey to earning a college degree isn’t that straightforward. Sometimes, the path takes many years, and it’s never too late to go to college.

For Bridie Cawthorne, her path to earning her degree was complex. Now 38 years old, she’s about to graduate from PSU with her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a focus in molecular and cellular biology. And what’s next for Bridie? She plans on earning her Ph.D. and doing industry research.

Becoming a doctor was not her plan right out of high school. In fact, Bridie never graduated from high school. “Studying was hard for me. I was a terrible student when I was young.”

Bridie was born and raised in Portland, but she ended up moving a few times and working odd jobs. After volunteering for a veterinary hospital, she landed a job at an emergency veterinary clinic. She finally moved back to Portland and continued working as a veterinary technician.

“I spent 15 years doing that,” says Bridie, “and I felt like I had hit my glass ceiling. I was burnt out. I loved that job, but I couldn’t emotionally handle caring for sick animals anymore.”

A friend of Bridie’s was thinking about going back to school, and she encouraged her to do the same.

“I struggled like many other older students with the decision to go to college, especially because I didn’t graduate from high school. Not graduating is a hurdle many people think they can’t overcome and go back to school. Anyone can do it, and it’s totally worth it!”

It’s a common misconception that students need to have a high school diploma or GED to get into a four-year college. PSU has a few options for students with non-standard high school backgrounds, including enrolling as a non-degree student or transferring from a community college.

Bridie started taking classes at Portland Community College. She originally went back to school for nursing. That changed when she took a cell biology class.

“That class made me feel like things made sense. My professor’s lectures were amazing, and I felt supported in my learning process.”

She began doing research in the lab through BUILD EXITO, an undergraduate research training program that supports students on their pathway to become scientific researchers. Students at PSU and partnering community colleges and universities, like Portland Community College, get hands-on research experience at every stage of their undergraduate education. Students are matched with faculty advisors and peer mentors, participate in enrichment workshops and receive financial benefits, including monthly stipends and/or tuition remission. The goal of the program is to attract more diverse people into the biomedical and social sciences.

Through BUILD EXITO, Bridie was paired with faculty advisors who teach at Portland State, Dr. Mike Bartlett and  Dr. Jeff Singer. “Without their help and the support from BUILD EXITO, I wouldn’t have made it into the lab. I got so much guidance.”

When Bridie started college, she was afraid she’d still be a terrible student. But she excelled  and made it on the Dean’s List, an award that recognizes academic achievement. She earned her Associate of Science in two years at Portland Community College.

Transferring to Portland State was the perfect next step because she could continue with the BUILD EXITO program and keep working with her advisors. “All my professors and advisors have made themselves available, which helped shape my academic experience at PSU. They helped me get jobs and figure out what classes would be a good fit for me. Every student at PSU should take advantage of the faculty and staff who are there to help them succeed.”

Bridie does “wet lab” bench work in the molecular/cellular lab, which includes cloning and maintaining cell cultures, among other tasks. The research looks at proteins that play a role in regulating the cell cycle.

Because of all her hands-on lab experience, she knew working in a lab was the career she wanted. “PSU helped open doors for me. Getting to work in a real lab added so much value to my education. I took what I learned in my classes and was able to apply them to a lab environment,” says Bridie.

In her senior year, Bridie served as a classroom learning assistant. A few classes a term, she facilitated discussion in Principles of Biology, 200-level general biology classes. She helped students understand how to interpret peer-reviewed research.

At the end of 2018, Bridie went to the American Society of Cell Biology conference, which was held in San Diego. BUILD EXITO covered her travel funds. At the conference, Bridie presented a poster, showing professionals in the scientific community her research.

She faced some personal hardships along her path. “I had two miscarriages while I was a student. I was struggling with grief,” says Bridie. “I saw a therapist through SHAC. There can be a lot of stigmas associated with miscarriages, but I was able to get the help I needed.” Students taking more than five credits pay a Student Health fee, which covers most services through PSU’s Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC).

Bridie has a little more winding path to travel—she’s currently six months pregnant with her first child. After graduating from PSU, Bridie plans on taking a year off to focus on her husband and baby. Then, she hopes to get a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at OHSU.

“When I first started taking college classes, I was self-conscious because I was the oldest person in the classroom. But I realized it doesn’t matter what age you are when you go to school. I was welcomed by a diverse group of students at Portland State. I feel supported here.”

See if PSU’s biology program is the right fit for your journey.

Bridie working in the molecular/cellular lab.