An interview with Mt. Hood Community College President Debbie Derr
ORCC: Why has MHCC joined ORCC as a member? How will this support MHCC’s goals?
President Derr: At MHCC we believe wholeheartedly in the value of community service and civic participation. This belief is built into who we are (after all, the word “community” is in our name), as a college, and as individuals. I am so proud to be part of a college that has a rich tradition of getting people off the sidelines and into the action in order to make the world a better place for everyone.
MHCC’s core themes are (1) teaching and learning, (2) community engagement and (3) resource development. Certainly, our membership in ORCC and subsequent partnerships with other colleges and universities will provide many opportunities for students and employees to make meaningful impacts on communities near and far.
ORCC: MHCC is committed to strengthening students’ community engagement. Why is this a priority and how will it benefit students?
President Derr: Whatever term you choose to use—community engagement, civic participation, service learning or volunteerism—we at MHCC are committed to students’ learning both in and out of the classroom. Participants receive much personal enrichment from volunteering that pays big dividends in their persistence to complete college and become fully engaged members of their community.
Our student government manages Barney’s Pantry, a food bank located in the Student Union. Any student is eligible to visit the pantry twice a day and help themselves to food and toiletries. If you have ever tried teaching a class to students whose stomachs are growling, then you know the value of a service such as this.
In addition, student leadership has put together informational meetings and opened them up to the general public on domestic abuse, sexual assault, and a number of other important topics. The benefits to these student leaders are enormous: They gain experience in planning, promoting, and facilitating events and meetings; they get to experience what it feels like to join others in a purposeful cause; they get to experience empathy and they get to witness the results of their collective hard work.
ORCC: How will community-engaged learning contribute to supporting the school’s diverse community and students?
President Derr: Two examples come to mind.
First, Scholarships for Education and Economic Development (SEED) is an international program that brings young leaders from rural areas of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to the United States for two-year technical training programs. After completing their program of study, SEED scholars return to their native countries with the skills needed to work for positive change in such areas as reforestation, waste reduction, watershed restoration and environmental education programs.
At MHCC, these students study Natural Resources Conservation and Environmental Technology. The visiting international scholars of our SEED program provide more than 1,000 hours of community service every year, ranging from ecological restoration projects in our local greenspaces to working with disadvantaged youth in SUN school programs in several of our district elementary schools.
MHCC is proud of the results of this kind of civic participation by our students. In the case of our SEED program, we value the lasting impact it has on our local community as well as the impact these young leaders have on their native countries as they carry on the important work of service to others on an international scale.
Last spring, our entire college rallied around Glenda Maribel Alfaro Salmeron, a SEED student from El Salvador who brought international attention to our college through the Clinton Global Initiative. Her project to replenish nutrient-poor soil and stimulate agricultural production in her native El Salvador came in second place in the Clinton Global Challenge. This event occurred before I became president of MHCC, but I am told that the Clinton Global Challenge made quite an impression on MHCC students and employees. Undoubtedly, Maribel’s work influenced others at MHCC and elsewhere to work through their church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship; through charitable organizations; and through their community college—to seek ways to make a difference.
Second, MHCC partnered with Associated Student Government (ASG) to open a Diversity Resource Center on the Gresham Campus this fall. The center is about more than color or culture. It offers engagement, along with awareness, understanding, and conversations, all in a safe place—which of course all translate to education. We believe that the Diversity Resource Center expands worldliness, enhances social development, and prepares students for future career success.
ORCC: How will this impact the Governor’s 40-40-20 goal and why is it good for Gresham and Oregon?
President Derr: MHCC has an active and award-winning Rho Theta organization, the college’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society that promotes academic achievement among community college students. Rho Theta students visit nearby Alder School, MHCC’s “Dreamer School,” to encourage children to study hard and stay in school. They invite kids to sign a pledge promising that they will complete college. Similarly, Rho Theta members also collect pledges from our own MHCC students.
By helping others with their own commitment to persistence, it enhances Rho Theta’s members’ commitment to their own academic success. We know that if students engage in their college, they are more apt to complete their academic programs and contribute to attainment of the Governor’s 40-40-20 goals.
The Oregon House’s poorest district (Parkrose) is located in our MHCC district. Since MHCC was formed in 1966, our district has looked to MHCC for services—classes and career training, certainly, and also activities such as Red Cross blood drives, flu inoculations in preparation for a particularly virulent outbreak, job fairs, and many other activities.
In June, we brought back a popular tradition on our Gresham Campus, the Strawberry Short Course Festival. Employees and students volunteered their time to teach classes in Whiz-Bang Chemistry and dozens of other topics. Interestingly, one of the instructors for the chemistry class developed an interest in science when he attended the festival as a 10-year-old. Today, he serves as lab coordinator at our college, where he influences students every day to achieve their academic and career goals—even 10-year-olds on a sunny summer day!