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PCC soccer brings students back to school

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - (Left to right) Jose Mendez-Zepeda, Jose De La Torre, Ibrahim Turay, Dmitrik Vidalez-Sandoval, Nichola Wong and Delia McQueen braved the wind, rain and cold last week on PCCs Rock Creek Campus to play soccer. When Rock Creek resident Delia McQueen was growing up, she watched as many of her extended family members joined gangs or got pregnant at 13, one by one.

At the time, it would have been easy for her to join her peers — but McQueen got involved in sports and school instead. “No one has ever questioned that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing with my life,” she said.

Being part of a team and excelling in athletics kept her motivated to continue her education, earn a college degree and pave a path to a better life.

McQueen, now in her 40s, has met countless students in her role as a physical education instructor at Portland Community College Rock Creek who never dreamed of higher education. She’s met kids whose parents told them they’d never amount to anything, kids who don’t see themselves as college material and kids who put all their hard-earned money back into helping their low-income families.

For a lot of 18-year-olds, it isn’t the value of education, long-term career goals or a better chance at a higher income that attracts them to a college campus. For quite a few recent high school graduates in western Washington County, it’s soccer.

McQueen recognized the school-as-a-means-to-play-sports attitude right away, based on her own experiences. That’s why she spearheaded the effort that brought back the PCC soccer team this fall — 20 years after funding cuts ended the original program.

About 70 guys tried out for the men’s team, which only accepts 30, and next year they’re expecting more. The women’s team has 20 players. Both teams compete in the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC).

The team completed its first season a few weeks ago. And while the season is over, the players are still in school on their way to earning diplomas.

Many never expected to be sitting in classes, studying in the library and doing homework in their free time after high school graduation, but they did know they wanted to keep playing soccer. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - PCC's soccer club practiced last week in the rain and cold at PCC's Rock Creek Campus. The club often funnels players to PCCs new soccer team that competes in the Northwest Athletics Conference.

For José De La Torre — one of the first people in his family to graduate from high school and the first to attempt college — a two-year degree seemed out of reach and a bachelor’s degree seemed impossible. With mediocre performances in school and sports at Hillsboro’s Glencoe High School, De La Torre committed to classes and soccer when he had the chance at PCC and is headed off to Multnomah University in Portland next fall with both academic and athletic scholarships.

In addition, now that the season is over, he’s dedicating even more time to raising his grade point average above 3.5 for extra grant money.

Players say their teammates not only motivate them to work hard at practice, but they help each other with studying and homework. Players have to earn a 2.0 GPA or higher, maintain good class attendance and take 12 credits if they want to play soccer.

McQueen sees a lot of herself in the soccer players she’s met. Her single dad kept her in field hockey, soccer, volleyball, basketball, track, karate — even cheerleading and dance team. She loved playing, being on a team, and the strict schedule and rules of formal practice and games resonated with her.

Compounding her tough surroundings was McQueen’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which went undiagnosed while she was growing up in the 1970s. McQueen would act out, punching her fists through doors and windows and getting in trouble for swearing.

“My dad realized at a young age what kind of personality I had,” McQueen said. “He knew I was going to be trouble.”

Sports helped McQueen channel her energy and gave her structure. Without sports, “I probably would’ve gone down a bad road. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today,” said McQueen, a physical education teacher at PCC.

Keeping her grades up solely so she could play sports, McQueen forged ahead, graduating from high school, going on to community college, earning a four-year degree and eventually a master’s degree.

That’s why McQueen spent years trying to bring back PCC’s soccer team and now helps out with the school’s club team, which funnels players to the official team. She’s spent her own money on jerseys and league fees and continues to volunteer her time.

Dmitrik Vidalez-Sandoval plays with the PCC soccer club. His mother had him when she was 18 and didn’t make it to college until years later when she was single and raising three kids. She always encouraged Vidalez-Sandoval to earn a degree. So did his grandma, who helped raised him and also attended PCC later in life. A photo of his grandma studying — surrounded by three little kids — serves as inspiration for him.

Vidalez-Sandoval was looking into colleges while attending Century High School in Hillsboro, but then started looking at the costs and chose PCC. He’s hoping the soccer club will help him polish his rusty soccer skills after taking off his senior year of high school due to injury. He’s planning to try out for Oregon Institute of Technology’s soccer team, hoping for a scholarship that would help him pay for a degree in software engineering or computer science. Jose De La Torre practiced at PCC Rock Creek.

Jose Mendez-Zepeda was one of the many students McQueen encouraged to join the soccer team. “She gives us encouragement and options. She influences us to do better,” he said of McQueen, who’s affectionately known among soccer players as Mama D.

Soccer “keeps them focused,” McQueen said. “If you want to play another year you have to finish your first year.”

McQueen is “like that aunt that keeps it real with you,” telling students to study and practice hard if they want to achieve, said De La Torre.

Mendez-Zepeda said his dad loves watching his soccer games and encourages him to take advantage of the opportunity for college he never had. A Hillsboro High School graduate, Mendez-Zepeda’s parents moved the family from a rough California neighborhood to get their kids away from drugs and gangs. It was this upbringing that’s sparked his aspirations to earn a social work degree by starting out at PCC.

“I want to help kids have another look at life,” Mendez-Zepeda said.

PCC will begin offering tuition waivers to soccer players to help with the cost of classes, said PCC Athletic Director Dick Magruder, whose career history is similar to McQueen’s. He, too, wasn’t interested in college or academics but ended up earning a four-year degree so he could play baseball a few more years.

The team also helps players feel more connected to PCC — a commuter school that draws students of all ages — cutting down on the temptation to drop out.

“We do a lot of goofing off but at the end of the day we have so much respect for each other and so much love for one another and we keep that connection after the season,” Mendez-Zepeda said.

Once, De La Torre counted his mom as his only supporter. “She says, ‘You’re going to go places. People don’t think you will, but you will.’”

But now De La Torre says he’s got McQueen, his teammates and Coach Walter Arevalo to add to the list. “You feel more involved. Otherwise I would just go to class and go home but now I’m meeting people on campus,” De La Torre said.

“It’s soccer,” said McQueen, “but it’s really all about education.”