Portland State’s 20 bright spots in 2020

Esmerelda Valdez: “Perfect depiction of what it feels to be a part of the Graduating Class of 2020!”

By Portland State’s Social Media Team

Unprecedented. Surreal. Socially distanced. No matter how you choose to describe it, 2020 has been a year like no other. But it hasn’t been ALL bad. Though the threat of COVID-19, urgency around racial equity and a strife-filled political climate have dominated our thoughts and lives, we didn’t have far to look to find uplifting PSU stories that will give you all the feels.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. We just didn’t have time to include more before 2021 is upon us.


20. Those beautiful blooming blossoms

Every spring like clockwork, 100 Akabono cherry trees bloom along Portland’s southwest waterfront a few blocks from campus, transforming the esplanade into a pink wonderland (and popular selfie opp.) In spring 2020, they provided a moment of much-needed normalcy against a decidedly abnormal backdrop. Fun fact: The trees were given to Portland in 1990 by the Japanese Grain Importers Association.


19. Athletes transform obstacles into opportunities

Viking men’s basketball coach Jase Coburn and Lindsay Coburn Meiggs held an impromptu wedding at Boise’s CenturyLink Arena.

Remember the canceled tournament that turned into a wedding? Or the drive-by retirement sendoff for beloved trainer Jim Wallis? It would have been easy for Viking Athletics to throw in the towel (bad pun intended) after facing challenge upon challenge this year. But that’s not the Viking Way. So when our student-athletes were sidelined from the sports they love, they responded with an overall 3.34 GPA for the year, including a remote spring term GPA of 3.56 — including 78 who achieved a 4.0 and 155 who ranked at 3.5 or above. #goviks


18. Star-studded Zoom drop-ins

Most of us agree that virtual gatherings just aren’t as good as in-person — but there is one advantage: cameo appearances. Comedian alum Ian Karmel graciously dropped in on a spring scriptwriting class to talk comedy. And soccer legend Abby Wambach and her bestselling author wife Glennon Doyle surprised the women’s soccer team. We can’t wait to find out who will show up next!


17. PSU steps up in early days of the pandemic

When COVID-19 first reached Portland, teaching and research labs around campus donated over 1,000 boxes of gloves as well as hundreds of masks and other personal protective equipment to local hospitals. The PSU Center of Entrepreneurship printed and distributed 1,000 face shields to Legacy Health. And they were just getting started!


16. Getting a second chance

Sentenced to 15 years at age 15, Josefina Ramirez this year was the first incarcerated youth in Oregon to become a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, part of the university’s effort to increase educational opportunities for people in detention facilities around Oregon. In the fall, Gov. Kate Brown granted Josefina executive clemency and she was hired by an outpatient treatment facility.


15. Alumni spring into action

  • Recent Portland School of Business grads Sharona Shnayder and Wanda McNealy were looking for ways to contribute to their communities last spring, and realized that picking up trash is a simple and safe way to practice environmental activism that anyone can do wherever they are. The Tuesdays for Trash grassroots movement was born! (Find them on instagram at @TuesdaysForTrash) 
  • School of Architecture alum Lisa Patterson designed a hub in Portland that provides bedding and clothing exchanges, medical aid, showers, bathrooms and an outdoor warming area for Portland’s houseless community.

14. Students go the extra distance

Morgan Godvin
  • Public health student Morgan Godvin moved to Tijuana last spring to serve the houseless community there while taking classes online between shifts. The experience made a deep impact, and Godvin now plans to pursue a career in public health and human rights law. 
  • In true Viking spirit, College of Urban and Public Affairs student Lauren Everett transformed an empty lot near her home into a temporary park last summer, a place for people to safely gather. “The amount of dedication and sweat equity that went into this project has been really inspiring” she said. “I hope this inspires similar efforts in other neighborhoods, to create spaces where people can gather safely during COVID and beyond.”

13. International students show resilience

Portland State’s international students had to contend with multiple stressors all at once this year. Thousands of miles from home, students worried about their families and friends abroad, had flights canceled and suffered financial hardship and homesickness — all while having to cope with changing immigration policies. Amazingly, they persevered. This fall, just over 1,000 international students enrolled at PSU. “There are some incredible stories out there of what students are doing to try to keep up,” said Christina Luther, director of International Student and Scholar Services. Read some of their stories here.


12. PSU names new chief of Campus Public Safety

Willie Halliburton

In July, Willie Halliburton was sworn in as PSU’s new Chief of Campus Public Safety. Halliburton has been at PSU since 2016, following a 32-year police career. He has since announced his commitment to unarmed campus patrols. “I believe deeply that safety comes from developing relationships in the community and treating people with respect,” Halliburton said. “My ultimate goal as chief is to build trust between CPSO and the PSU community — staff, faculty and particularly students. I recognize the need for change and to honestly address the concerns of the PSU community.”


11. Speech pathology clinic expands reach

While most speech-language pathology programs had to put clinical training on hold last spring, PSU quickly adapted its telepractice to actually expand its services. The clinic did not abandon a single client and, with the addition of four clinical supervisors, were able to increase their caseloads! “In the COVID-19 crisis, we have found an opportunity to innovate and deepen our commitment to serving the community and families in need,” said Claudia Meyer, director of clinical education at the Speech and Language Clinic at PSU.


10. PSU gave $8.3 million to students in need

The pandemic and corresponding shutdown was a financial disaster for many students. So when the federal government stepped up with $8.3 million earmarked for financial relief for students, it was gratifying to hear what a difference these payments made. “I can finally sleep at night,” was how one student expressed her profound relief after receiving the financial assist.


9. Researchers deployed smart trees in crusade to understand climate change

Hannah Prather, a certified arborist and postdoctoral researcher who is part of a team from Portland State, Reed College, Washington State University and The Nature Conservancy, spent the summer getting up at 4 a.m. to install sensors high up in Portland-area Douglas fir trees. These “smart trees” will become part of a study to better understand the impacts of climate change on urban trees. The Smart Trees team uses a range of technologies to monitor the health of the urban tree canopy, a key resource for reducing the social and environmental impacts of our warming climate.


8. Taking strides toward racial equity

Ame Lambert

As part of President Stephen Percy’s commitment to promoting equity and justice at PSU, the university will hire a cohort of 7 new scholars in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Gender, Race and Nations in fall 2021. The school — made up of Black Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies — seeks to better understand and advocate for historically underserved populations. PSU also welcomed the esteemed Dr. Ame Lambert as Vice President for Global Diversity and Inclusion. In October, she and President Percy convened five cross-campus task groups to organize a Virtual Equity Summit and developed a learning and action agenda to make our vision for a racially just and equitable future a reality at Portland State.


7. An unprecedented milestone

In June, Rachel Esteve became the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from Portland State with a four-year certificate from the Career and Community Studies program. Part of the first cohort of graduates from the program designed for students with intellectual disabilities, Rachel was joined by Lucy Balthazaar, Wyatt Isaacs, William Larson and Sawyer Viola.


6. PSU faculty among the best researchers in the world

Thirty-three Portland State researchers are ranked among the world’s most-cited and the top researchers within their discipline areas, according to a recent study that looked at more than 6 million researchers in 22 disciplines and 176 subdisciplines. Of course, we already knew this but it’s nice to be recognized!


5. PSU choirs make beautiful music

When it became apparent that in-person concerts were not possible in 2020, Portland State choirs quickly adjusted, practicing outdoors in small, distanced and masked groups. The PSU Chamber Choir, recognized as one of the finest choirs in the world according to Classics Today, created several live concerts online, partnering with the Rose Choir and Thorn Choir. And the Portland State Community Choir chimed in with a beautiful rendition of “Tender Love.”


4. School of Public Health helps with contact tracing

Students Hunter Peterson, Joyleen Mabika, Taurica Salmon and Shabir Sawary

When COVID-19 hit Oregon, Portland State public health students sprang into action, partnering with OHSU and Oregon Health Authority to perform contact tracing, conduct case investigations and help manage the outbreak. The partnership provided not only real-world experience, but also opportunities for careers after graduation. These inspiring Viks did more than study the issues — they addressed real-world problems with hands-on solutions!


3. Spring Term pivot

Yes it’s the most overused word of 2020, but we don’t care. Portland State faculty and staff delivered a full-on, jaw-dropping pivot this spring when classes moved from in-person to remote in a matter of days, and our students found new ways to learn and connect.

A few highlights: The Offices of Academic Innovation and Information Technology sprang into action to provide guidance and technical help. Faculty members adjusted their teaching methods and curriculum on the fly (and still kept their good humor).

Students shared their study spaces, quarantine routines and survival tips — which even included dancing on the roof.


2. The unexpected duet

It became the national anthem heard around the world. School of Music & Theater graduate Madisen Hallberg was recording the national anthem for PSU’s virtual commencement ceremony last spring in the park blocks when local artist and singer Emmanuel Henreid, who goes by Onry, walked by and asked to join her. This simple moment between two strangers was a balm for our souls during a divisive moment in our country, reminding us of the uniting, healing power of music. Thanks to the College of the Arts, the duo reunited this holiday season to bring us a beautiful rendition of Dona Nobis Pacem, translation: Grant us peace.


1. Celebrating The Class of 2020

Yessica Villegas

The Class of 2020 will have a distinct place in Portland State history. Participating in the first-of-its-kind virtual commencement after enduring four (or more) years of hard work, thousands of grads took photos in their regalia, celebrated at home or in their backyards … and made the best of it. And our faculty, staff, alumni and community stepped up to help make the moment special. Grads, you did it. We could not be prouder of what you accomplished and can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.


Follow Portland State on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn

Community of Action

1IMG_4856by Steph Holton

In my last blog post, I talked about failing my student commencement speaker audition, and since then I’ve realized that the things I’d hoped to be able to say to my graduating class are still words that I want to share, and ones that are just as true here as they would be on that stage. So to all of my PSU classmates, I’d like to say:

“Four years ago, when I stood in front of my high school graduating class of 121 students, I talked about the future. I talked about taking the lessons we’d learned from our parents, our teachers, our coaches, and going out into the real world to—eventually—do great things.

“Today, with this… marginally larger audience, I want to talk about the amazing lessons I’ve learned from you, my fellow students, and the great things you’re already doing.

“In our time together at PSU, we’ve seen newsworthy accomplishments—like our engineering students launching a balloon more than 20 miles in the air in order to bring the 2017 solar eclipse to the desktops of viewers worldwide, and students of different skin colors, religions, and nationalities rallying together swiftly and peacefully to stand for our rights to safe communities, women’s healthcare and affordable schooling.

“And then there are the more subtle, everyday accomplishments. It’s not uncommon to see complete strangers sharing their opposing viewpoints in the middle of the Park Blocks, or to inquire about someone’s pronouns, and then use them correctly. And even though at PSU we recognize that conversation, understanding, and respect are basic tenets of good citizenship, and that we still have a lot of room to grow in these areas, they’re not common practice on every campus. PSU is special because we don’t look past each other’s differences. We embrace them. We recognize that our different backgrounds and beliefs and aspirations are assets in our collective pursuits for a better world.

“Four years ago, I left my little Montana valley town for the stumps and bridges of Portland, and I’ve learned here that more than anything, it’s the small, everyday practices—recycling, asking others’ opinions, embracing difference—that make us all activists. I am so proud to be a part of this community of action, and I want to thank you for teaching me to appreciate the amazing things we’re doing right now.”

Commencement Conundrum

After four and a half years, two universities, two stints abroad, and hours upon hours spent pleading tearfully with academic advisers about my transfer credits, I am finally (FINALLY!) going receive my bachelor’s degree. I’ve fulfilled all of my University Studies and major requirements, done the proper paperwork and paid my “graduation fees” (since I haven’t poured enough of my money into educational institutions already, thank you very much). My GPA is even high enough to graduate with honors. All of this — and I still don’t know if I will graduate in the traditional sense.

You see, Portland State, unlike some other institutions, doesn’t offer a commencement ceremony in the fall term. Last summer, when I learned that finishing college was within the realm of possibility and I began envisioning my stylish cap/gown/diploma ensemble, I discovered that my only options were to walk at the summer commencement or wait until the spring ceremony. (Note to future graduates: I also learned recently that last summer was actually the last summer  term commencement ceremony at PSU, so keep that in mind when making your own graduation plans!)

To me, these are hardly satisfactory options. An early commencement would mean taking part in a ceremony celebrating an accomplishment that I hadn’t fully accomplished — the fact that I’d be returning to classes a few weeks later made the whole prospect seem rather anti-climactic. And as for waiting until next spring to walk, well, I don’t even know if I’ll still be living close enough to Portland to attend.

PSU seems to pride itself on being accessible to so many non-traditional students – I know I’m not the only student whose academic career has not fit into the standard four-year college plan. I just wish that our university was equally accommodating in celebrating the achievements of its non-traditional graduates.