Portland State is known for the diversity of its student body and for having more non-traditional students than any other Oregon university. Among this year’s 4,515 graduates, ages of students graduating range from 19 to 70.
Brittany Ouchida is one of three Portland State graduates who turned 19 this year. Ouchida was home-schooled for most of her childhood, until she tried to enroll in public high school when she was 15. When she tried to enroll, she found out her home-schooling had already covered all the high school requirements.
“I loved working hard for four hours, then being done, and still getting ahead,” Ouchida said of her years of being home-schooled. “I loved being able to go at my own pace, not waiting for the class to catch up.”
Ouchida excelled at the self-paced environment of home school, and after not enrolling in high school, she joined a Clackamas program that allowed high school students admittance to Clackamas Community College for free. While the program enabled most students who participated to graduate with an associate’s degree as well as a high school diploma, Ouchida left the program with only her associate’s degree.
Although Ouchida, like some other home-school students, did not receive a high school diploma, she was still considered a high school student when she first came to PSU. She was able to continue her education by participating in a program that matches school funds, using the funds to send high school students to college and counting credits toward both high school and college requirements.
Even though Ouchida still does not have a high school diploma, this spring she will receive a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. Ouchida said beginning college at 15 does have some drawbacks.
“I was so young when I started that I was pretty indecisive,” she said. “I couldn’t decide on a major, so it took me five years to graduate.”
During her first year, she took a varied course load, including physics, chemistry, biology and calculus. She was uncertain of what she would focus on when she transferred to PSU. “I wanted a challenge,” she said, “so my adviser suggested biochemistry.”
Ouchida said religion was not the core reason behind her family’s decision to home-school her. “We had a bad experience in public school, and my parents pulled me out,” she said. “My mom thought she could give me a better education than I was getting there.”
Ouchida said that home school is a common option in some religious communities, and that her family is active in their non-denominational Christian church. In addition to running Sunday school classes for older elementary children, where she said she teaches life skills and character growth, Ouchida currently works as a pastoral intern and preaches.
“But home school isn’t for everyone,” said Ouchida, whose younger sister, Megan, is a junior in a public high school.
Ouchida said she loved her work in PSU Professor Steve Garland’s laboratory, doing heart research. “I got the chance to actually do biochemistry, and I think that’s a unique experience in a field where so many students only see the theoretical aspect.”
Ouchida said she has pushed some of her friends to reconsider subconscious feelings of ageism. She said some people think differently about students if they know they are younger.
“A lot of my classmates didn’t know how young I was until they had already known me for a few terms. Then they would say things like, ‘I wouldn’t have hung out with you if I had known your age,'” she said. “They realized that their prejudice wouldn’t have allowed us to be friends.”
Michael Sherlock is Portland State’s second oldest graduate at the age of 69. He lost the title of oldest graduate by one year, to a 70-year-old woman who has already returned to Germany. This winter Sherlock was awarded one of the most popular degrees at PSU, a bachelor’s degree in social science.
“I was always interested in social problems and the causes behind them,” he said. After leaving a career in the military in 1980 and retiring from his work with the federal government in 2002, Sherlock took a year and a half off before he enrolled at PSU.
Sherlock put in years on advisory boards at PSU, ranging from overseeing the treatment of children in foster care to reviewing the treatment of kids in juvenile detention centers.
“I always wanted to study this stuff, but I had no time or opportunity before,” he said.
Sherlock began a career in the military directly after he graduated from high school. He said he never planned on the military turning into a 25-year career.
“I went in to spend four years, come out, and go to school, but I got captivated by the military,” he said. “The Navy is interesting and challenging, so I pursued a career.”
Sherlock was stationed in Italy and Germany, and spent time in Vietnam during the war. He said these experiences raised his awareness of social issues.
“All around the world, you always have the same problems,” he said. “Whatever kind of government there is, whether it’s democratic or whatever, there are always the same poor and disenfranchised – the children.”
He said that, because of his age, he had extra experience to offer his classmates.
“I could discuss things in class that had happened in my lifetime that they had perhaps never even heard of. In Italy, there is such abject poverty. Kids are on the streets almost from infancy,” Sherlock said. “In Naples and Rome, street kids get involved in gangs. In Vietnam – you can imagine the problems poor kids face during a war like that.”
When he was 43, Sherlock retired from the Navy and began working for the federal government, keeping track of the Trident submarine system. Tridents are nuclear-powered submarines that house sleek ballistic missiles. They were the last nuclear deterrent created during the Cold War, one weapon among many involved in holding the balance of “mutually assured destruction.”
“Age is of no consequence,” Sherlock said of his formal education at PSU. “I had fun and I was accepted socially.”