Class of 2020 Graduates: You Did It!


In the wake of a global pandemic, these graduates refuse to despair at the state of the world. Instead, they are changing it.

STATEWIDE – Every year, Gov. Kate Brown addresses Oregon’s graduating class by speaking at a few of Oregon’s high schools and colleges/universities. Due to the global pandemic, most commencement ceremonies have been postponed, canceled, or moved online. But Class of 2020 graduates deserved recognition for their accomplishments, so Governor Brown recorded a statewide commencement that was featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

The twelve-minute address featured six stories of Oregon graduates (both high school and college/university) who were doing incredible things to serve their communities and prepare for their future during uncertain times. Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) worked with schools all over the state to submit stories of their most incredible students.

The submitted stories detailed fantastic things that the Class of 2020 was doing to be resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. These were stories of diverse, creative students who are helping their communities, overcoming adversity, doing interesting projects, and/or changing the world in both big and small ways. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, not all of Oregon’s fantastic student submissions could be included in Gov. Brown’s statewide commencement address. But these stories had to be shared. What follows is a feature on a few more of Oregon’s Class of 2020 that are making the world a better place than it was when they arrived.

OHSU School of Medicine – 2020 Graduate Profiles

Alix Cooper, German Ferrer and Ashley Moran are some a handful of OHSU School of Medicine Class of 2020 graduates who have been able to start their medical residencies early to support Oregon’s COVID-19 response.

They are among 104 students in the of the OHSU M.D. Class of 2020 who were able to graduate early this spring thanks to the school’s time-variable, competency-based curriculum. While most of their fellow early graduates need to wait until July to start their residencies, Cooper, Ferrer and Moran were also able to start their residencies early because they were matched with OHSU residency programs.

Cooper and Ferrer are now family medicine residents at OHSU’s Cascades East Rural Residency Program in Klamath Falls. Because they’re working in a southern Oregon community of about 21,000 people, where there are fewer health care resources and medical specialists than metropolitan Portland, they know they and their Cascade East colleagues may care for Klamath Basin community members who have coronavirus symptoms. 

“We’re most needed when it’s dangerous,” Cooper told OPB, describing a physician’s role in the community. “I think we’re always at some amount of risk, and we have to understand that being at risk is part of the job.”

Cooper is also motivated by the idea that everyone has a role to play during this crisis.

“We’re seeing a lot of people step up and contribute whatever they can — whether that be making masks, taking care of the older adults or offering discounted food.” Cooper told OPB. “My role just happens to be something that’s more direct to patient care and I can draw inspiration from all of those other people.”

And, having recently married a firefighter paramedic that she met when she herself was a paramedic, Moran is now an emergency medicine resident at OHSU Hospital in Portland. The couple is forgoing their honeymoon — which was going to be a ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming — to contribute to the nation’s coronavirus response.

“It feels right for me to step up and start now, in the middle of a world health crisis,” Moran said. “My husband helped me a lot with my decision and fully supports my choice. It helps that he is also working and facing many of the same challenges I will. Although I’m anxious about starting in my new role, with new responsibilities, I feel honored to have the opportunity to help and make a difference at this particular time of need in Oregon.”

OHSU School of Nursing – 2020 Graduate Profiles

Alyssa Jacobs will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the OHSU School of Nursing’s Monmouth campus.

During the pandemic, Jacobs has simultaneously continued her studies, worked as a certified nursing assistant and volunteered for Meals on Wheels. At Salem Health Hospital, she has cared for suspected and confirmed coronavirus patients on a designated COVID-19 unit. 

“This has given me the unique perspective on how COVID-19 has impacted our community,” Jacobs said. “This pandemic has made me a more compassionate person and I am so proud and honored to be part of such a selfless and giving profession.”

Jacobs has seen first-hand as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels through Marion Polk Food Share how important food delivery is for her community’s more vulnerable residents.

“Many of the community members who use the Meals on Wheels service are elderly and have underlying conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” Jacobs said. “It is a scary and uncertain time for these individuals and by providing this service, they can feel more at ease knowing they have a nutritious and balanced meal delivered to their home. This also takes some of the stress and worry away about having to leave their house to buy groceries.“

She looks forward to serving as a registered nurse and nurse leader.

“Throughout this pandemic, I have realized that individuals rely on nurses in their greatest time of need,” Jacobs said. “I hope to contribute to the field of nursing by providing my assistance, whether that be in the clinical setting or in my community. I hope to continue my education to advance my knowledge and become a leader in nursing. I want to help in any way possible and inspire others to do the same. I believe if we work together, we can truly make a difference.

Jenn Leitch is an OHSU nurse manager who is also graduating this spring with a master’s degree in Health Systems and Organizational Leadership from the OHSU School of Nursing’s Portland campus. She has been a registered nurse at OHSU for 20 years and previously graduated from the OHSU registered nurse-to-bachelor of science program, also known as the RN to BS program, in 2016. 

In support of OHSU’s COVID-19 response, Leitch has been working extensively to safely and effectively move half of the case management staff to working remotely. She is also using the effort as her final project for her master’s degree.

“In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the ‘stay home, save lives’ shelter-in-place mandate by Governor Brown to keep our community safe, it was imperative to move as many staff as possible off of our campus to reduce the risk of transmission while still meeting the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services rules and regulations and patient care coordination needs,” Leitch said 

Classified as a critical function, OHSU inpatient nurse case managers interact with patients and other healthcare team members to effectively coordinate care, manage patient length of stay, and plan patient discharge to various levels of post-acute care. Such case management helps reduce healthcare costs for patients who frequently use the healthcare system, belong to vulnerable populations, are socioeconomically disadvantaged, or have multiple chronic medical conditions.

For her master’s degree final project, Leitch is designing, implementing and monitoring a hybrid model of on-site work and telework for inpatient nurse case managers during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is helping ensure the remote case managers can continue to provide the same high-quality case management services as their on-site peers. Throughout the pandemic, Leitch has worked to enable all nurse case managers to continue advocating for patient-centered care plans and equal access to healthcare resources so patients can thrive after they are discharged from the hospital.

“I hope to continue to lead and empower nurses to feel fulfilled within their practice, and strive to provide the highest level of value-based care in connecting patients to resources, improve access to care to decrease healthcare costs, and advocacy for healthcare equability for vulnerable populations,” Leitch said.

Columbia Gorge Community College student, Austin Krentz, is a member of the Class of 2020 who will be graduating in June with his AAS in Electro-Mechanical Technology.  Austin navigated the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning in this, his last term, to prepare for graduation.  How did Austin cap off his engineering education? With art, of course! “This semester’s Art 286 Watercolor Zoom class has been amazing! Not only am I able to now get the final credits I need to graduate, it has also been very informative, fun, and feels like this class was designed around Zoom — it works extremely well!”  We are proud of Austin and his graduating classmates!  

Portland Community College’s Tyler Robin is Researcher in the Making

As a first-generation college student who goes by the pronouns they, them and their, Tyler Robin, 24, entered Portland Community College unsure of what they wanted to do. But one of Robin’s favorite teachers inspired them to go after their passion — chemistry — and become a scientific researcher. 

“I was lucky enough that one of my favorite teachers taught me that it’s okay to be unsure, but just do your best,” explained Robin, who is graduating this spring with an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree in Physical Science with a 3.75 grade-point average. “I have met some amazing teachers that inspire me every day to continue my education and aim higher and higher.”

Chemistry faculty Stephanie Bryan and Ken Friedrich set Robin on the way into the world of science by supporting, pushing, and inspiring. Composition and Literature Instructor Melody Wilson helped Robin stay on the science path, and Student Life and Leadership Manager Kendi Esary showed them how to lead. 

This support led Robin to become involved in both student leadership and the BUILD EXITO scientific training program at Portland State University. In student leadership, Robin learned how to make a difference in the lives of their fellow students, and joined the campus sustainability team, creative writing club and managed the student food pantry at the Cascade Campus.

Robin will continue their education at PSU as a Chemistry major with the plan of going to grad school. In light of the pandemic, scientific researchers are in big demand, and Robin hopes to make a difference.

“I want to have my own lab and do my own research,” Robin explained. “Without all of the help and guidance at PCC, I wouldn’t be here today. As a first-generation student, going to a community college was the easiest option for me. It was cheaper and less pressure. Once I got here I was told by many people that it was the best school in the area and they were right!”

Portland Community College’s Phuong Vo is Focused on Community Service

Since she was a small child, 29-year-old Phuong Vo always dreamed of studying abroad and helping others. She grew up and went to a high school in a rural area of Hue City, Vietnam and experienced hardships that would have made studying in another country like the U.S. seem out of reach.

However, a few years after graduating from the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City, Phuong decided to reach for her dreams and move to the U.S. where she discovered Portland Community College.

“Being here in the U.S. has been a miracle for me,” Phuong explained. “My dad passed away early when I was in high school, but I did not give up my studies. I continued to pursue my dream despite the financial challenges.”

At PCC, Phuong found the support she needed to reach those dreams. She accessed the college’s food pantry, and got involved by becoming a member of PCC’s student government so she could help other students and build her English skills. In addition, she earned a PCC Foundation Scholarship that helped her pay for her classes.

“The scholarship motivated me to keep trying and moving forward in my education,” she explained. “At PCC, I feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging, which helps me feel safe and able to focus on my studies, and my English has improved dramatically.”

The support gave Phuong the confidence to expand her efforts. She traveled with a PCC group to support under-represented communities by building homes for low-income families in Hawaii and spent time in Washington D.C. where she lobbied elected leaders on student issues. Plus, she mentors fellow international students and volunteers with the non-profit organization Rose Haven, which assists people experiencing trauma and mental health issues.

When the college transitioned to virtual due to COVID-19, Phuong borrowed a laptop from her student government office and never missed a beat. It also allowed her to keep advocating for students by planning and running online events, conduct social media outreach, and run her club meetings to keep the sense of community for her students.

Phuong is graduating this spring with an Associate of Arts Transfer Degree in Sociology to add to her associate degrees in Science and General Studies. During her three years at PCC, she cultivated a 3.93 grade-point average. Phuong now is looking to transfer to the University of Oregon’s InterCultural Service Program — a scholarship program for international students focused on community service.

“I would love to work for a non-profit organization as their program/project coordinator, or as an educator in Africa to help communities there,” she said.

Oregon State University senior profiles

Griselda Genaro Lopez, a mom of three boys under 10, will be graduating in June with a degree in marketing. She grew up in Corvallis after emigrating from Mexico in 1995. She also serves on the elementary school PTA. She lives with her parents. Her mom, who is a housekeeper, quickly lost her job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Meanwhile, her 4-year-old twin sons have respiratory health issues, which puts them at a greater risk of acquiring the virus that causes COVID-19. “I’m very scared,” she said. “It’s traumatizing to go out with them, even for a walk.” Nonetheless, she has hope. Her father still has his job. And once she graduates she plans to open a family construction business that will put her marketing knowledge to good use.

Alexis Young, 25, of Lincoln City, will be graduating with a degree in fine arts. Last March, a house fire left her and her roommates scrambling for housing and destroyed almost all of her accumulated artwork. She spent fall term of 2019 studying abroad in Italy, returning home just a couple of months before the country went into lockdown because of COVID-19. And now the pandemic has blocked her from finishing her senior art project, a series of three massive metal sculptures, because she can’t gain entry to the campus studio. But if the past year has taught her anything, it’s how to look for the positive in life, and she encourages her classmates to do the same: “I know it’s going to be hard, and I’m scared too, but I think we (graduating seniors) can also do a lot of amazing things with this. And I think for the world in general, if we band together and learn about the changes that have happened, I think we can do a lot of good.”

Photo by Jade Webster

As soon as OSU classes moved online this spring, Piper Monson, a kinesiology major who will be graduating in June, decided that she wanted to find a way to assist the community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Monson, who is 22 and from Bend, soon connected with OSU’s TRACE project, which is sending teams of trained field workers throughout Corvallis to collect a random sampling of COVID testing to determine the virus’s true prevalence in the area. Monson’s job is to organize the materials and test kits that field teams take with them to safely collect samples. She says she feels honored to be part of this effort, as it is helping scientists understand COVID better and that will help all of us get back to normal.  “This job doesn’t feel like work,” she says. “I am genuinely excited each weekend to come to campus and work on this project.”

While spending the end of her senior year social distancing instead of enjoying long-planned events with friends has been upsetting at times, Monson feels she has adapted to the changes. “At some point you kind of realize that this is a lot bigger than you,” she said. “What helped me to accept changes was to just remember that college is only just the beginning. I have a whole life ahead of me filled with many more experiences and events to look forward to.”

After graduation, Monson plans to gain clinical experience before applying to graduate school to become a physical therapist.

Oregon State University senior Sofia Baum is heavily involved in gender, race and food justice work at Oregon State and in her local community. She is a business administration student with a double major in sustainability. She has served as a community relations facilitator for University Housing & Dining Services, a project specialist for the Center for Civic Engagement, a participant of the Multiracial Beavers and Multiracial Aikido Retreat and as a PROMISE intern, a program that provides pathways for historically underrepresented students to professional careers.

Baum also has been a part of supporting the garden at the OSU Human Service Resource Center to grow organic produce to support campus food security efforts, and continues to do so during the COVID-19 response.

Baum is vocal and proactive when it comes to taking a stand for what she believes is right.  In her PROMISE internship, she expanded her understanding of Oregon’s complex history and inequities which exist locally and regionally. Her work with the Multiracial Beavers Network and the Multiracial Aikido retreat has played a significant role in creating welcoming and affirming spaces for multiracial students at Oregon State. Baum’s willingness to share first and model vulnerability in her own racial and social identity work has allowed other students to feel brave and courageous to share their stories, challenges, and successes as well. 

Oregon Institute of Technology Senior Profiles

Norman Guerrero is an Oregon Institute of Technology student from Bend, Oregon, graduating in June from the Respiratory Care program. COVID-19 significantly impacted and nearly side-tracked his clinical education as student externships were canceled due to the shortage of personal protective equipment in hospitals. His family’s income was also halted due to COVID-19 sanctions. While Norman’s original externship was canceled, all of the students in his program chose to sign a waiver rather than sit out the term, especially one that they wanted to be of service during. For him, this meant traveling to a distant externship site and spending time away from his wife and two young children. However, Norman persevered and was awarded a Helping Owls Scholarship from funds raised by Oregon Tech alumni. He will graduate and have experience working in the profession of respiratory care, which has been brought into the public consciousness during this pandemic.

As a mother of three kids, one dog and a hamster, Sandra Appolonio has spent seven years working toward her degree. As she graduates in June from Oregon Institute of Technology’s Radiologic Science program, she will be the first her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. She is fueled by a deep desire to support her children and show them that if you put in hard work and dedication you can accomplish anything.

Kate Florez, a senior in the Business Management program at Oregon Tech, has identified a need for universities to implement more constructive resources for their students regarding their financial literacy. The student loan debt has increased at a rate of over 116% over the past decade, solidifying its place as the second-most significant financial burdens of Americans. Kate is proposing a financial literacy course be implemented into Oregon Tech’s education model to give students the tools to start off on the right foot. After distributing an institution-wide survey and conducting subsequent analyses of the data, she has identified and prioritized the key concepts that Oregon Tech students need for their financial success. She hopes that this proposal will help current students realize how much Oregon Tech cares for their financial success post-graduation.

Mira Jones, Oregon City Service Learning Academy

Mira was a strong-willed student and someone who would never just go with the flow.  She would blaze her own path however and whenever she wanted, with the confidence of someone who knew what she wanted out of both school and life.  Despite this independent and confident personality, however, she quickly encountered resistance at the start of high school that overwhelmed her and caused her significant anxiety.  Forced to confront her options before she fell too far behind, Mira opted to advocate for herself and pursue another schooling option that would be more conducive to her learning style.  While the anxiety involved in making such a significant move at that age was significant, Mira took control of her education and overcame these fears.  She became integrated in leadership roles, developed a love of children, found a part-time job at a day-care, and saw potential in herself that her mother feared she had permanently lost.  When the school closure occurred in March, Mira was determined to persevere and continue her path towards graduation; a goal she will achieve this June.

Devon Butterfield, Oregon City Service Learning Academy

Devon has been resilient in the face of change throughout his career.  As a voracious reader and a lover of books, Devon consistently found himself loving literature, but struggling with his connection to school.  Having moved multiple times throughout his K-12 high school career, Devon continually found himself apathetic to education, and struggling to find a true school community.  Over time, however, Devon eventually overcame the challenges of multiple school relocations and teachers he failed to connect with.  By his senior year, he had put himself into position to graduate, but with the school closures in March, he feared his desire to graduate might not come to fruition.  Thanks to continued efforts by Devon, his mother, and his school staff, Devon will ultimately reach his goal of graduating on time with his 2020 cohort.  

About Author

Sam West is the speechwriter and executive assistant to Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

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