Last week, we headed over to Gresham for a tour of Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) with student Daniela Baltag. In the 2018-2019 school year, MHCC served 4,562 first-generation students. This school year, Daniela is one of these students.
Daniela moves around campus with the ease of a seasoned campus tour guide—surprising for only having started at this school a month ago. She points out the colorfully decorated classroom where her ceramics class is located, the mediation room in the library with fairy lights raining down the walls where she takes a breather between classes and a particularly colorful section of trees among the forest-covered campus.
Daniela was motivated to attend college because of the doors it would open for job opportunities, a new network and travel. But as a first-generation college student, a daughter of immigrants from Moldova (she moved to the United States when she was 10 months old) and growing up in a Romanian-speaking household, she struggled to understand the application process and general terminology. During her senior year of high school, she joined TRiO, an organization designed to help low-income and first-generation students transition into college.
TRiO is a federally funded program offered at over 3,000 sites across the United States, including MHCC. Through the TRiO program at the college, Daniela has access to services including tutoring, financial guidance, mentorship and personal counseling. As a part of the program, she was partnered up with a coach to guide her through the process of applying for school and transitioning into this new academic world. "I would feel like a really big hot mess if I didn't get some more awareness about college life," Daniela says when speaking about TRiO. With the support of TRiO, Daniela now only has to worry about the adjustments that would plague a normal first-year college student.
For Daniela, it's changes like adapting to a less rigid class schedule, balancing her part-time job at a coffee shop and not seeing her friends in class every day. But her curiosity, career goals and desire to travel are what keeps her pushing through.
Once Daniela had settled on attending college, it was time to pick a school. Classes are the most important thing in her college experience, and when comparing course lists of all the Portland-area schools, MHCC had the best selection. The world literature series is what truly won her over. "I feel like I'm in a different time zone," she says with admiration, "it feels weird going back to the modern world after the world literature class."
As a first-year, with some direction but a lot of curiosity, Daniela understands that it's important to explore and take advantage of what her school has to offer. She's eager to try out some of the P.E. and visual arts courses. With more than 130 programs to choose from at MHCC, she has the opportunity to explore everything from fisheries to welding. In addition to granting associate degrees, MHCC also offers many technical and trade programs. Seemingly something for almost everyone, whether you're on the path to a four-year institution or earning a training certificate.
While many might recognize community colleges as commuter schools, MHCC has much to offer on campus to make students feel comfortable spending time there. Students have access to an extensive library, a planetarium, a dining room, a rock wall, an aquatic center and more. Living in southeast Portland, other schools might have been a more convenient option for Daniela, but with MHCC, she liked that all of the college's classes were at one central location— and she would rather spend her time between classes taking solace in the trees than battling the traffic downtown. She also values the small class sizes and appreciates that her instructors, after only a month of classes, all know her by name.
Daniela is excited about the doors that college will open in terms of career opportunities. "This is what we Slavic people do," she explains, "we come to America, we start our own businesses…there's a lot of truck drivers and a lot of the mothers clean houses. So we're like a whole new generation that goes to college because our parents [couldn't] go." While Daniela is part of this first generation attending college, she describes herself as a bit of an oddball within her community—being interested in literature and teaching while most of her friends are pursuing health and medical fields. "I have a sense of value for raising the next generation," she explains.
One of the first things on her list that she hopes to take advantage of through college, is to join a study abroad program. She's eager to explore, having never traveled, other than back to her home country Moldova. While MHCC does have its own study abroad program, Daniela was drawn to the Portland non-profit, Carpe Mundi, because it caters specifically to low-income and first-generation college students in the Portland area. Through the program Daniela plans to apply to, she will volunteer to build a school in Southeast Asia, spend a week meditating and live with a homestay family.
With barely a month of college under her belt, Daniela has a lot to explore. TRiO will have her back through the next two years she's at MHCC, preparing her for whatever she wants to do next. But right now, she's focused on her reading assignments for her World Literature class and figuring out how to convince her dad to let her backpack through Southeast Asia. While she's still shaking off post-high school jitters, there seem to be countless possibilities and much to look forward to in her future.