Defying the odds

Once a teenage mother and high school dropout from a low-income family, Carmen Anderson now has a bachelor’s degree, multiple awards, two children and is a cancer survivor. She has defied every obstacle set before her.

Once a teenage mother and high school dropout from a low-income family, Carmen Anderson now has a bachelor’s degree, multiple awards, two children and is a cancer survivor.

She has defied every obstacle set before her.

While recognized for her hard work, the two-time Permanent Commission on the Status of Women essay contest winner and recipient of the 2009 President’s Diversity Award has much more to brag about.

She came off of welfare and moved out of low-income housing. After graduating from Portland State last year, she set her sights on yet another possibility, a master’s degree. She quickly realized, however, that there were a series of challenges ahead.

“Last year during graduation season I was diagnosed with cancer—a really rare form of thyroid cancer,” Anderson said. “I got sick from that, and people I had met from PSU really rallied around me. I was sick all through the summer, and going through treatments in the fall. A week before grad school started, I got out of the hospital,” she said.

If Anderson’s past hurdles had taught her anything, it was to defy this challenge. The disease is so rare that she’s the first case in Portland, and had to travel to the East Coast for a diagnosis.

“I would not accept the notion that I was sick,” Anderson said. “They told me that they didn’t know enough about it to say if I would survive it or not … I just kept pushing through it because I didn’t want anything to keep me from my plans. I feel blessed to have been able to pull through that.”

Today, Anderson’s cancer is in remission. She is continuing her studies to earn a master’s degree in adult education.

She wants her daughter to realize that college is expected, a stark contrast to Anderson’s childhood.

“[College] was not something that was impressed upon me as something to do,” Anderson said, “I didn’t even finish high school. I dropped out of high school when I was a junior and got my GED. Looking back on it now as an adult, I didn’t know how to express myself. I was just pretty rebellious and I wanted to be grown up real quick.”

She was on her own at age 16, and a couple of years later she had her son, who would later be diagnosed with autism.

“I was still probably a typical teenager,” Anderson said. “A teenage mom, wanting to go out to the mall, but I had this baby, and he was diagnosed with autism at 3.”

The challenge of having a child with autism didn’t strike Anderson. She ignored the doctors who told her the limitations of her son’s development.

She set out to prove them wrong, helping her son to achieve more than the doctors said he could.

“I have always defied what professionals told me about the parameters they had set for him, and he deified them as he saw me do it,” Anderson said. “And now he is going to move out on his own when he is 19.”

Following high school, she worked many dead-end jobs to put food on the table. But when she gave birth to her daughter at age 29, she knew she had to make a change.

“I knew that I was not going to be able to make it and have viable employment and take care of my children if I didn’t have an education,” Anderson said. “I was on welfare assistance and I was in low-income housing, and I didn’t want to pass that on to my daughter.”

She began what would become a long and tedious journey at Portland Community College.

“Going in, I just wanted to get an associate’s degree,” Anderson said. “But once I got in there, I saw how I could change the world for myself, and it encouraged me to keep going.”

She quickly grew to love school, became involved in student government, the Women’s Resource Center and the NAACP, all while earning her bachelor’s degree in social science. The cancer diagnosis did not even deter her from working toward her master’s degree.

Anderson’s most influential experience was the black history course she took.

“[I saw] how I was viewed in society and the statistics for black women, and I didn’t want to be that, and I wanted to defy it,” Anderson said.

“I wanted to set an example for women who are struggling and women who were on welfare. Everything I have done up to this point I have tried to set that example. I felt like becoming an activist in my own life,” she said.

She looks to share her experience with others as well. Next year she wants to start a volunteer program for black students in Portland-area high schools that will work with alternative schools to open up the doors to higher education.

“I believe in education as empowerment and I believe in education as a way to bring yourself and your family out of poverty,” Anderson said. “There sometimes can be a lot of tradition in a family that is not positive and education is a way to start positive traditions.”