Humble and engaged’

When Layton Borkan returned to work at the Center for Student Health and Counseling in 2006 after a stint away convalescing from a bout of cancer, she expected to work for perhaps six months and then retire.

When Layton Borkan returned to work at the Center for Student Health and Counseling in 2006 after a stint away convalescing from a bout of cancer, she expected to work for perhaps six months and then retire.

Borkan, a Portland State graduate and a clinical therapist with Counseling and Psychological Services since 1986, was asked to fill in as director of CAPS on an interim basis.

They never found someone to replace her. Instead, Borkan, 64, stayed on as director for more than three years—the culmination of a career spent at the university—and will finally retire this month.

Before she does, Borkan will have the honor of receiving the Mary H. Cumpston Award for Service to Students at commencement and the pleasure of watching her daughter Johanna graduate with a master’s degree from the School of Social Work.

“I never went to any of my own graduations,” Layton said. “It seems like a great way to retire.”

While Borkan encouraged her daughter to think about other degrees, she said it is no surprise that Johanna chose social work, as a sense of social justice runs strong in the Borkan family. Layton’s father, Mac Wolfe, was a physician who advocated for women’s reproductive rights and spent his career educating female doctors in obstetrics and gynecology.

Layton married a psychologist, Gene, before moving to Portland in the early 1970s. The family is still dealing with the recent loss of Layton’s sister-in-law, Susan Jordan, the feminist lawyer who represented Inez Garcia in her retrial. In 1974, Garcia was charged with murder after defending herself from rape and was exonerated in her retrial, which became a landmark decision in favor of a woman’s right to use deadly force against sexual assault.

“[Jordan] had the same sense of social justice, the same kind of energy that my daughter Johanna has,” Layton said.

Johanna completed her undergraduate studies at Grinnell College, where she studied social history.

“I’ve always been really interested in social justice,” Johanna said. “Just kind of the stories of communities, making lives.”

Johanna took a year off after graduating in 2006 and worked in Ann Arbor, Mich. The University of Michigan has the top-rated social work school in the nation, but Johanna missed Portland and knew she wanted to settle down in the Northwest.

“It seems really important to go to school in the community you want to work in,” she said. “I guess I just kind of wanted to develop my own place in the field.”

She got just that chance. The graduate social work program at Portland State has numerous community partners, affording Johanna plenty of opportunities to apply her class work in the field. Last year she completed a social work internship with a medical focus, and she has been interning as a child and family therapist with Outside In.

“I think it ended up being a good decision,” she said. “Portland State does a really good job of being embedded in the community and having a lot of contact with various community agencies and really serving the community, which is what I think education should do.”

Johanna counts her Grinnell adviser, Victoria Brown, as well as both her parents as forces that have influenced her interest in social work and social justice.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about it because of this funny symmetry of me graduating [and my mother retiring],” Johanna said. “She has been a big mentor for me. To just watch her, in her 60s, taking on these totally new responsibilities and doing some amazing things in her position, it’s been really inspiring for me.”

She also pointed out that Layton took the reigns of CAPS immediately after a vicious round of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.

“I just took it one day at a time,” Layton said of her cancer, which was discovered in 2005. “The cancer I had was very treatable and I trusted my doctors. I had lots of support.”

To her surprise, Layton said after the chemo was finished and she had her strength back, she was filled by a strange energy and zeal for life.

“You really do get changed by realizing how close to death you are,” she said.

Instead of being frightened by that proximity, Layton said it allowed her to face the daunting challenge of running CAPS unfazed by the work ahead.

“I have always thought that it was a privilege to work here,” she said. “It has seemed to me that Portland State is a real example of democracy in action. This is a place where people really work hard for their education. It’s kept me humble and engaged.”

As the Borkans prepare for a busy, exciting day June 13, Layton recalled one year when she volunteered at commencement. After the ceremony, hundreds of families and their happy graduates spilled out onto the Rose Garden plaza, crowding the area with a mass of joyous humanity.

“There were so many proud families,” she said. “It’s very inspiring.”

The Borkan family is also creating a scholarship in honor of Layton’s parents, Thelma and Mac Wolfe. The scholarship will be for graduate students in the School of Social Work and will pay for stipends for field placements. The scholarship amount is still being determined. To donate to the Thelma and Mac Wolfe Education Scholarship fund, call 503-725-8020 or e-mail [email protected].