Alumnus of the Month – Larissa Star Hutchinson

For the majority of her professional career Larissa has worked in a teaching or student support role helping adults identify their strengths, tell their stories, connect to themselves and others, create and reach their goals, and create new and better stories for their lives. She has worked as a mentor/assistant teacher for over four years at Portland State in University Studies; as a volunteer ESL teacher and tutor for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO); as an English, writing, and culture studies teacher in Germany; and as a life coach for college students with InsideTrack.

In her current role as a career advisor/advancement coordinator at Open Meadow Schools she offers professional readiness training and college support to youth ages 18-24 who are from low-income families and who sometimes experience other significant barriers to success. The training and support includes building personal awareness, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and identifying strengths and goals and creating action plans. Diversity training and building a strong sense of community are also critical elements of the program. The young people she and her team work with begin to emerge as the gifted, unique and motivated people they truly are. Many of them go on to do professional internships, complete college degrees or job trainings, become deeply involved in community service, and/or find fulfilling work.

Q&A

How did you transition into the field after your graduate studies?

I was a first generation college student and came from a poor, working family. I was also a teenage mother. When I was young, my life plan did not involve college or a professional career. When I thought of my future, I dreamt only of having enough food, clothes, love, and a secure home and I didn’t dream much beyond that. As I grew up, my opinion of my own strengths and abilities was limited. I am where I am today because of others recognizing my abilities and offering me opportunities, and me being brave enough to trust them and myself.

I became interested in my field of student support, education, and social justice when I became a McNair Scholar in my undergraduate studies. Learning about the TRIO programs got me excited about working with underrepresented and underserved adults in higher education.

In the GSE, I learned about the Imposter Complex as a component that keeps so many nontraditional students from believing in their abilities and moving forward toward their higher education goals. I also discovered that I too sometimes experienced the Imposter Complex, and talked about it often with my advisor, Michael Smith. He offered me great support in that area and helped me realize that I do, in fact, belong in higher education, and that I have a lot to contribute.

What has proven to be the most useful thing you learned while at the GSE?

During my time in the GSE, I learned that even while we have great understanding (based on over 50 years of research) about how different people learn and what supports they need to be successful in education and beyond, we have yet to apply this knowledge, on a large scale, to our everyday practices in higher ed. There is great work to be done still, and there are many people in the field who are passionate about making it happen, including myself.

What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?

I feel proud of many things. One of them is moving to Germany for a year (with my 12-year-old daughter) and being responsible for planning and teaching multiple courses in the English department at Trier University. While there, I taught academic writing and American culture courses. I learned a great deal about the roots of our own education system and made strong connections with many German and international students who had not encountered student-centered, experiential learning before. Many of them said they were inspired to go into teaching after taking my classes, as they didn’t know learning could be so fun or interesting.

The GSE strives to make an impact on our community through the work of our students, faculty, and alumni. What does the term “impact on the community” mean to you?

To have a positive impact the community means to 1) identify something that we want to either enhance or change in order to increase the well-being (economic, social, psychological/emotional, or physical) of individuals, families, and neighborhoods; 2) create a plan that addresses the issue not only from one perspective, but from multiple perspectives (racial, cultural, and social class); 3) implement the plan with the involvement of those directly impacted; and 4) assess the success and effects of the impact from the perspective of facilitators and community members.

This is a strategic plan for making an impact on a community. But I want to be clear, small impacts on individuals are all that ever really happen. And enough of these small, individual impacts can culminate to create a larger shift in a community. On a daily basis, when we abandon judgment of ourselves and others, when we offer support, when we have unconditional positive regard for another person, we make an impact. And that is what I strive to do every day as an educator and advisor.

How do you try to incorporate this concept into your daily work?

As a life skills and college/career prep educator and advisor, I understand that every interaction I have with students sends them a message. I approach my work with the four steps listed above. This includes looking beyond my own white perspective and working to listen and understand the experience of people of color whom I support. This also means I actively explore the origins of my own racial perspective and the assumptions I make about myself and others.

It is also a founding principle of Open Meadow to have unconditional positive regard for our students, and this is something I have adopted as one of my own values for every person I encounter and hope to have a positive impact on.

Did you have a favorite professor while at the GSE? 

Just one? I absolutely loved Michael Smith as an advisor. His honesty, humility, and curiosity inspired me and helped me feel connected to someone in the department.

Candyce Reynolds, who advised me on my comps, has regularly practiced unconditional positive regard for me before I realized what it was. She also expressed unwavering faith in my abilities.

Andy Job was my favorite teacher in the classroom. He is thorough, calm, and good natured, and knows his stuff. He delivered information in a variety of formats, allowed us to work together in groups every class period, and always showed enthusiasm or interest in our ideas. Thanks to all of you!

What advice would you give currently enrolled or recently graduated students?

For those in the program: truly connect with someone in the department! Make it happen yourself. Ask all the questions you need to, whether it has to do with program requirements, assignments, or comps. When you KNOW what needs to happen, then you can do it or get SUPPORT in making it happen. And, most importantly, there is no need to grow and learn in isolation. Believe you belong where you are and seek out people who will help you be successful.

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