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From distant towns, Roosevelt High grads return to honor two women who hounded them toward college [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. :: ]
[June 27, 2014]

From distant towns, Roosevelt High grads return to honor two women who hounded them toward college [The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. :: ]

(Oregonian (Portland, OR) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 27--Stephenie Smith and Katie Gipson-McLean didn't just alter paths taken by Roosevelt High School students. Before many students met them, there was no path.

For much of the last decade, one or both has acted as mentor, counselor and tutor to students the system calls "at-risk." They were kids without family support or the means to experience anything beyond their North Portland neighborhood.

Smith, 33, and Gipson-McLean, 26, helped students in the low-income neighborhood find their foster siblings. They found college scholarships, too, and spent weekends watching guard as the students filled out the applications. And when those students finished college out of state, the two counselors bought plane tickets to attend the graduations.

Last week, both Smith and Gipson-McLean packed up permanently, preparing to leave Roosevelt for new adventures. A few dozen of their former students returned home to Portland -- from colleges in New York, Arizona and Florida -- to recount the ways their lives were shaped by two women who aren't much older than they are.

"These are all kids who would have never made it if they had not had them there with them every step of the way," said Christian Swain, Roosevelt's varsity football coach.

Fitting in Gipson-McLean was only 21 years old when five years ago the nonprofit school Open Meadow hired her for its dropout prevention program Step Up. The program's advocates have offices in four area high schools. The school's directors sent her to Roosevelt, where Smith had been working for three years.

Smith hadn't expected to still be at Roosevelt when Gipson-McLean arrived. Before working at the school, she had little confidence, she said, and bounced around between jobs. She'd assumed she'd leave Roosevelt quickly, too.

Instead, she found she fit in a job for the first time. She quickly moved up the program's ranks to become its lead coordinator.

"We create a space where everyone 'fits in' and feels welcome," Smith said. "We create family, in all it's dysfunctional glory." Gipson-McLean, too, had been looking for a community where she belonged. Like many of the kids she met, no one else in Gipson-McLean's family had attended college. She attended a school in Arizona labeled failing and dangerous.

At Roosevelt, she came to see her own difficult teenage years as valuable experience that would help her lead others.

Speaking at the school's commencement ceremony this year, her last at Roosevelt, she told graduates, "It is here with all of you that I have found my song." Pushing toward college Together, Smith and McLean kept students on track. Smith oversaw the big picture while Gipson-McLean worked with individual students.

Former students said last Friday they never would have gone to college without the mentors. Syracuse University student Crissy Phommachack said she probably never would have left the neighborhood.

Phommachack came from a strict family. She longed to travel outside Portland, but her mother didn't have the money or desire to help her. When she was a high school student, she regularly complained that other students had more opportunities.

Finally, during her junior year, Gipson-McLean found a program that would allow Phommachack to travel to New York City for the summer. The only trouble? It cost nearly $2,000 and Phommachack didn't have the cash. Gipson-McLean guided the teen through writing letters and knocking on doors to ask St. Johns business owners for donations. She raised the money in less than a week.

"She opened the world for me," Phommachack said Friday. "She taught me how to ask for help." Leroy Brandon, too, dreamed of leaving Oregon. Smith and Gipson-McLean thought he had a good shot at winning the Gates Millenium, a scholarship that pays for exceptional minority students to attend school all the way through a doctorate. The application is grueling: Students have to write nine essays and submit several recommendation letters. Brandon didn't think he could cut it.

The day before the deadline, the mentors sat him down and watched as he wrote essay after essay. He won the scholarship, and next year he will study video game design at the University of Utah. He won't ever have a student loan.

"I don't know where I would be," Brandon said. "That's how big of an impact they have had on me. I wouldn't have done theater or student government. I wouldn't have won the Gates." Moving on Swain worries how those students will cope in college without Gipson-McLean walking them through each step.

"And I don't know what we're going to do here without her," he said. "It's a little scary moving into this next chapter. " Smith will stay in the area helping her family run franchises of the gym Curves. Gipson-McLean plans to attend law school at Willamette University.

Both wrestled with the decision to leave. Gipson-McLean said students showed her what's possible beyond Roosevelt.

"You all have inspired me to pursue my dreams," she said. "So just as you all are moving on in your life, I am moving on in mine.

-- Casey Parks ___ (c)2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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