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At SOU and RCC town halls, task force hears about barriers facing underrepresented students

Members of the Joint Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education listen to students during a public hearing July 20 inside Stevenson Union at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Left to right: Sen. Robert Wagner, Sen. Michael Dembrow, Rep. Teresa Alonso León, a legislative policy analyst, and Sen. Lew Frederick.

Before Wednesday, Southern Oregon University senior Frankie Mora had never spoken to state lawmakers, but by day’s end he felt confident enough to share his story in a public hearing on campus.

The 23-year-old psychology major who works three jobs to make ends meet appeared in Stevenson Union with his peers, sharing their stories with a small group of legislators who make up the Joint Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education.

“It doesn’t really set me up for success,” said Mora, referring to the fact he must work multiple jobs while taking a full credit load. “I’m having to just sustain myself, as opposed to finding an opportunity in my field of study and making that my full-time focus.”

The initial phase of the task force, born from House Bill 2590, seeks to identify educational barriers faced by underrepresented students — including first-generation ones like Mora — through a series of town hall meetings. Two meetings were held in the Rogue Valley this week — at SOU Wednesday and at Rogue Community College’s Table Rock campus Thursday.

State Rep. Teresa Alonso León, D-Woodburn, the task force chair, praised Mora and others who came forward to speak during the public hearing.

“This is why the task force was developed — it is so that we can take your experiences as a student, your challenges as a student and then our task force is going to figure out how to solve some of those challenges,” she said. “We hear you; we see you. We want to help students like you; you don’t have to struggle.”

The public hearings, which were recorded, will be used by legislative subcommittees to figure out policy language in three areas: financial aid, student support services and higher-education culture and accountability.

The final phase of the task force’s work involves the entire Legislature, which will use the subcommittees’ work as a template to craft legislation during the 2023 session in Salem.

Student feedback from the meetings already got Alonso León thinking about what higher-education bills she could sponsor, but she doesn’t want to get too far ahead of the task force’s process.

“My style as a leader is to work collaboratively,” Alonso León said after the meeting. “Right now, it’s important for me to have our task force members co-chair our subgroups, so they can take leadership, and work ... to come up with policy ideas for 2023 … to ensure that we are creating an environment for our students where they feel like they belong.”

During Wednesday's hearing, the task force heard from five people — a nursing major raised in American Samoa; a 2021 SOU graduate and survivor of sexual violence who is attending Willamette College of Law; a military veteran who is a first-generation college student; and Mora. An SOU employee, academic adviser Christopher Mahan, also spoke.

Mahan noted he is president-elect of the Oregon TRiO Association. TRiO refers to the three original programs that were funded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. TRiO is part of SOU’s support services.

“As a first-generation and low-income college student myself, I could not overcome the barriers to complete my degree, had it not been for TRiO,” he told the task force.

Mahan offered the task force several suggestions for underrepresented students that could help, like more tutoring, longer library hours, free bus passes and a “clothing pantry” so “students can look their best during job interviews.”

“With your help and approval, I have no doubt that we will have an impact for future underrepresented students and higher education programs,” Mahan said.

SOU student Elizabeth Sagatu, who was raised in American Samoa, told the task force that she enrolled at SOU for its “affordable” tuition. Still, paying for school isn’t easy, she said.

“There are a lot of boundaries and barriers, having to access more school resources,” Sagatu said. “I don’t get financial aid, so I have to work extra hard on campus to get as much as possible to pay for my tuition.”

Having to pay off tuition to register for the following term also is a challenge, she said.

“Things like that, it really challenged my faith, my hope, in staying in school longer,” Sagatu said.

She urged the school to offer more scholarships and raise the cap on student work-study hours.

Mora also asked for the hour limit be raised, but he also brought up the issue of food stamps, a federal program.

“Food is a basic necessity,” Mora said. “The meal plan itself will not sustain a lot of students, and it’s not going to make up for what SNAP benefits could offer them.”

Taham Khosroabadi, a nontraditional, military-affairs and higher-education senator with SOU student government, addressed online services, the school’s veteran resource center and ROTC.

“It’s hard for veterans to integrate into anything — regular jobs, school, everyday life,” Khosroabadi said.

After hearing the student senator speak, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, remarked that student veterans are one of the groups of underrepresented students he has “had my eyes open to” in the task force’s tour throughout the state.

“I think many of us have this sense: ‘Well, we have a lot of students to worry about, (but) we don’t really need to worry about the vets because they have the GI Bill, and that takes care of everything,’” Dembrow said. “We’ve come to realize that’s not the case.”

Jana Baker, a 2021 SOU alumna who is a student at Willamette College of Law, praised the Ashland institution for how it handled classes during the pandemic, its compassionate faculty and networking opportunities.

“I know higher education is a package deal, but I think it’s really important to look at what makes each school different,” Baker told the task force. “It’s the network that makes SOU different, it’s the services they have to offer and it’s the people.”

Her comments led Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, to remark, “Thank you for your vulnerability, your determination and your grit. You’re going to be a great attorney.”

“I think the key thing for me is, there’s a sense of optimism here, in this university; that helps a great deal,” said Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. “Optimism, as well as what the limitations are. The limitations revolve around the obvious situations in terms of tuition, but even more so, the concerns about housing and the ability to create scholarships and grants and funding.”

Correction: This story has been updated to provide the correct spelling for former SOU student Jana Baker.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.