Alumnus of the Month – Tamara Ryan


Tamara Ryan is a first-generation college graduate who is turning her life experience into success for students. After earning her BA at PSU, Tamara worked at a local non-profit, Hacienda CDC and learned about the housing and educational needs of our immigrant communities. She then took a position as a Research Assistant (NPC Research) helping to evaluate recidivism rates of inmates in Washington County. After three years in government jobs, Tamara returned to Clackamas Community College in 2009 as a Workforce Advisor and transitioned to Portland Community College in 2011.

Currently Tamara is a Career Resource Specialist at the PCC Rock Creek Campus, where she works to empower students to make their careers satisfying and fulfilling. Her experience working with students, immigrants, inmates, and displaced workers has given her the tools she needs to make the most of any student’s situation, no matter the obstacles. Focusing on an individual’s circumstance and maximizing their potential has become her signature method. She believes this is the key to transforming a student’s educational journey. Tamara considers her work life-changing for herself as well as the students with whom she works, and emphasizes the value in teaching adults.

How did you break into the field? Or how did your work at the GSE help you reach your professional goals?
I’ve always worked with adult populations, from my work with inmates, displaced workers, immigrants, and college students. My experience at the GSE expanded my views on the experience of adult learning and education. In PACE, we understand that as we reach adulthood we encounter so many variables that influence our relationship with learning– some good, some bad. There are people out there that really think that it’s harder for adults than children to learn—that is simply not true! Not according to research, theory, or practice! Throughout the PACE curriculum, what I learned inspired me to believe that as adults, we can choose to redefine our relationship with learning in ways that are empowering and positive, so that we can change our paths.

What has proven to be the most useful thing you learned while at the GSE?
I know this sounds cliché, but everything I learned was equally useful during my time at the GSE. I worked from eight to five at PCC, and then took classes four or five days a week from 6-9:30pm. It was stressful, but it was also cool because I would read and study adult learning theory at night and then be able to see it and apply it at work the next day. What I was learning was real, and I could apply all of the readings and discussions to my job at PCC. For me, my experience at GSE was very hands-on ☺.

What is the accomplishment in your career that you are most proud of?
I’ve had several events on campus that I am proud of; the accomplishment in my career that I am most proud of is what I learned from teaching a scholarship class at Portland Community College winter term 2013. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life; there I was, trying to provide information on how to apply for scholarships when what the students needed first was career advising, academic advising, and counseling services. After the second week I threw out my syllabus and started from scratch. Back to the beginning stuff like “what is a major?” and “how does an academic plan integrate to a future career plan?” I met with each student individually two or three times and helped many of them make appointments with counselors. At the end of the term I was in tears because I witnessed such transformational growth in each student! The experience validated that things are not always as they appear and we must be willing to constantly renegotiate our methods and our interaction with others based on what’s happening in the present moment.

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?
For me, the term “impact on the community” means going outside our comfort zone and daily routines to understand and have compassion for the problems of our communities so that we can remain relevant to the realities and experiences of our others. We must create safe spaces where diversity of opinions and uniqueness of the experiences of others is honored. We must never become complacent to our surroundings or circumstances. There is so much of a world that exists beyond our individual perspective!

How do you try to incorporate this concept into your daily work?
In my work at the community college–where there can be so much suffering influenced by poverty, mental health issues, work/balance/family stress and anxiety–there is a daily beacon of hope from the hearts of people that are committed, often times against insurmountable odds, to better their lives and the lives of their family through education. Every person I encounter comes from a different walk of life and world view: it is my job to show love through compassion for their unique circumstances and help problem-solve, advise, guide, and encourage them to see beyond their current situation. Dr. Cornel West said it best: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people, you can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.” For me, making a positive impact in my community is through love and service, and it makes me feel good!

Did you have a favorite course/professor/project while at the GSE?
Dr. Michael Smith. When I was researching graduate schools to apply to, it was very important for me to attend a school that had faculty I could identify with. Like me, Dr. Smith is a first-generation college graduate from a diverse socio-economic and ethnic background. I knew that if I went to the GSE that the faculty would “get me” and in the end, it made all the difference.

What advice would you give students currently enrolled or recently graduated?
I worked full time at PCC and took 12 credits per term during my time at the GSE. Despite the stress of balancing work, family, and school, my advice for currently enrolled students is to enjoy the classes and invest the time to maintain quality relationships with peers. The higher education community in Portland is a small circle; there’s a good chance that the folks that you’ll be competing for jobs with, as well as the folks that are making the hiring decisions, are alumni of the GSE or know someone who is. I still keep in contact with many of my PACE peers and we help each other navigate through our careers over lunch or happy hour. It’s nice to connect with folks that you share such a life-changing experience with. Basically, use classroom time to make positive connections and expand your community!

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