We asked four Portland State graduates what their experiences after college have been like. One of them returned to school only to wind up with the same job as before. One went into academia. One never really left PSU. And one actually applies the skills they learned at PSU every day.
Annual salary: $30,000
Years at PSU: Two
Degree earned: bachelor’s in women’s studies
Outstanding debt: $27,000
Job title: Cutter, wardrobe department Oregon Ballet Theatre
Why she went to PSU: “I thought I could just be a student and just work part-time; that was false. I had to work all the time.”
Chelsea Vaughn was already on an upward track in a costuming career with a small line of clothes that were being distributed around Portland when she decided to enroll at Portland State.
Her goal was to take a break from her whirlwind schedule and be a student for a while.
Instead, she wound up needing to work through school to make ends meet and after completing her degree in women’s studies, eventually returned to the same job she had before she went to PSU.
“Before going back to school, I was just sort of going up and up career-wise, getting better and better career offers,” she said.
“It didn’t just set me back time-wise; I actually wound up missing career opportunities and spending time in positions below where I had been.”
Vaughn moved to Portland when she was 17 and obtained an associate degree in apparel design from Portland Community College in 1999. But even before she completed her tenure at PCC, she was already working at the Oregon Ballet costume shop.
“I was doing freelance work such as pattern drafting and on a very small scale had my own line of clothing,” she said.
After two years living the backbreaking life of a full-time employee and freelancer in the off season, Vaughn decided to take a break and return to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Majoring in women’s studies seemed a natural fit, even if the degree did not offer a broad spectrum of career opportunities.
“When I was taking classes at PCC – just whatever interested me – it turned out to be half art classes and half women’s studies.”
Vaughn had already begun traveling down her chosen career path and was merely looking for an opportunity to hone her knowledge of topics that interested her.
“When I started I had some ideal of just going for an education,” she said.
But soon Vaughn’s easy approach to higher education began to belie her tenacious work ethic.
“I originally thought I would go slowly and just take classes that were interesting, but once I got into it, I just started slamming through it for some reason.”
After finishing her courses in just two years, Vaughn returned to a slightly altered costume design landscape in the same career cycle as before.
“I learned a lot. I had some really great classes, and there are some teachers that I just think are amazing,” she said. “I don’t regret going back to school, but sometimes I question that decision.”
“Over the summer, I was having a hard time looking over the student loans I had, working the same job I had before I went back to school.”
Executive director, Oregon Student Association
Annual salary: $35,000
Years at PSU: Five
Degree earned: bachelor’s in liberal studies
Outstanding debt: $17,000
Job title: Oregon Student Association Executive Director
Why he went to PSU: “I was actually going to go to a different school but I was taking a few classes [at PSU], got recruited to work at the Vanguard and stayed – accidentally.”
John Wykoff’s career very clearly illustrates the limitations of Google. The PSU grad’s name returns a lot of hits about his current job as executive director of Oregon Student Association but says little about how he got the job or his deep roots and influence at Portland State.
The 32-year-old lobbyist divides his days between the capitol building and OSA’s headquarters in a northeast Portland house. In Salem, he wears suits to schmooze with legislators, help student board members testify and strategize. In Portland, he and his staff research bills, form policy and plan conferences in their jeans.
His path to becoming the well-respected head of a powerful higher education advocacy organization included and a bachelor’s in liberal studies at PSU, journalistic training at the Vanguard and multiple high-powered internships during and after college.
“John Wykoff and the OSA are the most powerful and most effective lobbyists here,” said Debbie Murdock, who handles government relations for PSU. “They are very respected for their work. Not to mention that John’s smarter than the average bear.”
Since the OSA board is composed of student government members from public Oregon universities, Wykoff is frequently at Portland State. Aside from being knowledgeable about students’ interests in Salem, his background makes him an expert on student affairs at PSU.
“I have a ridiculously PSU family,” Wykoff said. His parents, sister, aunt and uncle attended PSU. His father was news editor of the Vanguard, and his mom is chair of PSU Advocates.
“My parents met through friends at PSU. I think their first date was a football game.”
Originally, Wykoff had other plans.
“I was going to go to Whitman, because that’s what kids from Lincoln [High School] do, they go to small private schools.”
He took a year off to save money but signed up for a news writing class because he was bored with his job at The Gap.
News writing just happened to be open, Wykoff said. From the class, he was recruited to write for the Vanguard and eventually became editor-in-chief.
Working for the paper taught him “how to get information quickly from people who don’t want to give it to you,” a skill he said serves him well as a lobbyist.
Looking to the future, Wykoff said he wants to keep making things happen rather than reporting on them but also wants to keep “balance” rather than have more stressful job.
“I wouldn’t mind doing four or five years of really grueling work,” he said. “I really just want to do a job I enjoy and find interesting. I want time to have a balanced life.”
Annual salary: $40,000
Years at PSU: Five
Degree earned: master of science in sociology
Outstanding debt: $40,000
Job Title: Adjunct professor, research associate (Indian Health Board)
Why he went to PSU: “Because it was cheap, nearby and an urban university.”
“Hang up! Hold on a second – Hand up the phone!”
No one bothers to put the extension back on the hook in the other room, but Boyd Bergeson’s three roommates can be heard chattering to each other in the distant background.
There are four housemates sharing this phone, all of them guys. They like to drink beer on any day of the week. A hand-made spaceship is parked in the shed where a dryer should be and Boyd’s wet laundry hangs from a line on the ceiling of his bedroom. But although it may seem so, Bergeson is not a college student. He’s a professor.
Now that Bergeson is employed as an adjunct professor at Portland State and Pacific University, he lives more like a college student than ever before. Throughout his years as a sociology student at PSU, he lived alone in a sterile studio.
Upon graduating, however, he realized it was time to simplify. He cancelled the high speed internet, ditched the cable television and moved in with friends. He now works three jobs: intro to sociology web classes at Portland State, more sociology classes at Pacific, and a research gig with the Indian Health Board.
“My cost of living is virtually nothing, and I don’t have any other responsibilities,” he said. “The hours are good, you have the weekends off, and you’re always learning something from the students.”
When he came to PSU he had no idea what he wanted to do, just that he was interested in sociology. He was considering a research internship when he was given a teaching assistant position for the chair of the sociology department.
“It fell into my lap,” he said.
He someday hopes to be a full-time professor with benefits, but Bergeson says this works for him, for now. His ultimate goal is “to be financially secure enough to be able to work as little as possible and travel as much as possible.”
His love of travel is a big reason why he chose to live the way he does. In the last couple of years, Bergeson has been to Brazil and Thailand. His goal is to visit all seven continents and this summer he’ll be going to Turkey.
After a year off he plans to obtain a PhD and hopefully do some medical research, but in the meantime Bergeson said he’s content.
Bergeson takes his mouth away from the phone. After several seconds of silence he says, “Can I call you back? We’re going to a party.”
Annual salary: $51,000
Years at Portland State: Two
Degree earned: bachelor’s in mechanical engineering
Outstanding debt: $35,000
Job title: Mechanical engineer
Why she went to PSU: “I spent four years at PCC and one terrible year at the U of P. I wanted to stay in the area. [Portland State] had small class sizes, and I liked the campus.”
From Crystal Watson’s perspective, green building is the way of the future.
“A lot of people are fighting it, but it has to happen. We’re running out of everything, populations continue to increase and cities are becoming more dense,” she said.
Watson, who graduated from Portland State in 2003, works for Glumac, a consulting engineering firm that is a leader in green building design. She transferred to PSU after spending four years at Portland Community College and a year at the University of Portland.
“I came to PSU because my experience at University of Portland was so terrible. I liked that PSU professors had real world experience, that the school is really flexible for non-traditional students and it’s cheaper than other schools.”
Portland is a leading figure in green building and Watson is happy to be involved. She is accredited to do green building design through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and hopes to focus more and more on green building design and water conservation.
“Water will be the next oil. It is becoming a commodity. Even though we live in a very green place that rains a lot, it is still a very precious resource,” Watson said.
While Watson does not feel that the mechanical engineering department prepared her for the professional world she said she does not fault them for that. “Engineering, especially mechanical engineering is such a broad field it would be hard to prepare you fully,” she said.
She remembers her time at PSU fondly: “I am definitely happy overall with my education at PSU. I had such a terrible experience at U of P. Professors at PSU are more open-minded.” She liked that the mechanical engineering department had a good selection of senior electives and that instructors were available to help with homework and tests.
She also appreciated the hands-on approach of many PSU professors “I learn by knowing how things work. I am not a theoretical person I am a hands-on person. When professors were teaching you something they would have an example of something they had done at a job,” Watson said.
Watson was one of only two women out of the 50 members of her graduating class, but she feels that the professors “kept it open and inclusive” and remained open-minded. “They had real expectations from us knowing that we all had jobs and other commitments.”
Her only regret is that she did not come to PSU later. “During the end of my PSU career, there was some innovative new blood coming into the department. And I wish I had gone to school after the new engineering building was built.”
Watson is the first member of her family to graduate from college.