Portland Community College graduate finds new purpose through education

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: JAMES HILL - 'Today, I am graduating with more than my degree, I'm graduating as a new person,' Michelle Reers tells a crowd of thousands gathered in Memorial Coliseum for PCC's graduationMichelle Reers gained more than two associate’s degrees during her time at Portland Community College.

The 45-year-old Tigard resident discovered a new life’s purpose. She found redemption from a troubled past and hope for a brighter future — one where she can continue to inspire others to embrace the opportunity a college education provides.

As the student speaker for the college’s 51st graduation ceremony at Memorial Coliseum on Friday, Reers told the thousands of people gathered about the person she had discovered within.

“I found that I loved to help others, and often it was no more than just sharing time, knowledge or caring,” she said during her speech. “As I helped others succeed in their goals, I watched my character change to model more closely the person I always knew myself to be deep inside, regardless of what I had been told.

“I am worthwhile, I am capable, I am strong, and I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Those are powerful words Reers never dreamed she would ever say about herself.

“When I look back on the past three years, it’s amazing,” Reers said the day before graduation. “I have accomplished more than I ever would have imagined.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: JAMES HILL - Michelle Reers shares her story of how education changed the course of her life as the student speaker during Portland Community College's 51st commencement ceremony.

A way out

Growing up as a military child of divorced parents, Reers recalled the pain of physical and mental abuse that robbed her of the ability to trust as a young girl and plagued her with self-doubt.

After struggling in school for years and failing her freshman year of high school, it was a teacher who recognized she was capable of more as a student and talked to her about the option of turning things around so she could go to college. She graduated from Leilehua High School in Oahu, Hawaii, and went on to attend California State University, Long Beach in 1986.

“I saw college as a way out,” Reers recalled.

While Reers was able to escape her home life, the then 18-year-old wasn’t prepared to focus on her academics. Her first attempt at a college education ended after her first term.

“I wasn’t ready,” Reers said. “I didn’t have the emotional or mental tools to be successful in the college environment, and my life took a severe turn.”

She became pregnant with her son, Christopher Unger, who is now 24, and married his father. The couple had two more children, Brenton Unger, now 22, and Alaura Unger, who recently turned 20.

“When my marriage fell apart 10 years later, I was devastated,” Reers said. “I saw it as the ultimate failure. As my parents had predicted, I couldn’t do anything right.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: JAMES HILL - Michelle Reers, center, shares the podium Friday with two of her mentors, Chris Chairsell, vice president of Academic and Student Affairs, and Linda Gerber, Sylvania Campus president.

Downward spiral

As a single mother of three, she found herself without the tools and skills she needed to live up to her responsibilities.

“My self-worth struggled, and I became more and more desperate,” Reers said. “And that’s when I got messed up in meth.

“It gave me energy to work more than one job, keep the house clean, and keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. But too soon my life was spiraling, making one bad decision after another. I spent six years spinning those wheels.”

She realized her addiction was stealing valuable time from her children.

“I was afraid of losing my life to the drug, and more importantly, I was afraid of getting caught and losing my children, who I love very much,” Reers said. “It was a hard place to be in.

“It’s hard for me to look back on that time. I was at the very bottom.”

Her love for her children motivated her to find the strength to overcome the drug. With the support of her sister, Shasha, and her good friend, Ceneth Reers, she battled through her addiction and put the drug behind her for good.

While she had broken free of the drug, finding good employment was difficult.

“I realized without an education, I wasn’t going to get anywhere in this world,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go back to school.

“That is when I decided to finish what I started 22 years before. I was going to go to college. This time it wasn’t to give myself an escape — it was to give myself an opportunity.”

A new person

Reers, who married her loyal friend Cen in 2009, enrolled at Portland Community College three years ago.

This time around, with the encouragement of faculty, students, staff and administrators, she threw herself into her studies, earning an accounting certificate her first year and being named to the President’s and Dean’s lists.

She was invited to join the Phi Theta Kappa international honor’s society, of which she now serves as president of the Sylvania PTK chapter Alpha Eta Iota. She also worked on the student senate and volunteered for numerous programs.

The people around campus inspired TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTINA LENT - Michelle Reers gained self-confidence during her time at Portland Community College. The former methamphetamine addict has been drug-free for close to a decade.

“They showed me there are fantastic people out there with huge hearts,” she said. “They gave me the energy and spark to keep going and stay involved with student leadership.”

Reers found the acceptance and success she had been longing for, earning two Miller Foundation scholarships through the PCC Foundation, PTK’s Dave Arter Achievement and Distinguished Member Regional awards as well as being named to the 2013 Oregon Community College Association All-Oregon Academic Team.

During her time at PCC, Reers has in turn inspired others, including her daughter, who earned her high school diploma from PCC last winter and is now working toward her own associate’s degree. Her husband Cen, who is employed with the college’s facilities management services at Rock Creek, is also working toward an associate’s degree in general studies.

“PCC has been quite instrumental in my family’s lives,” Reers said. “It’s given me an opportunity at a second lifetime.”

Reers earned her transfer degree this year after getting her associate’s degree in general studies last year. She is now heading to Oregon State University’s Honors College to study botany and one day help save the environment.

“My outlook on life has changed,” Reers said. “I have so much hope for our youth. The students here have made me see the bright side of humanity and our future. I now want to help people and do my part to make a difference in this world.”

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