I was the student destined to fail.

A disruptive life at home prevented me from sleeping through the night, food insecurity caused lack of nutrition, and living in poverty meant that basic needs were often prioritized over a homework assignment. Gallegos

Like other kids can do, I took out my frustration in the classroom — causing me to switch from school to school, class to class, getting in and out of trouble. It wasn’t until I landed at Jefferson High School, with several suspensions on my record and a bad attitude, that I found a counselor and a teacher who were determined for me succeed. It was only with this institutional support — and the dedication of my mother — that I went from being kicked out of schools to astounding myself with getting good grades.

With newfound confidence because of my grades and a sustained support system, I became involved on campus. By the time I graduated high school, I was an officer in a social club, a member of the student government and earning a 3.5 grade point average. I had turned it around — but in my head, I still had nowhere to go.

With neither of my parents, or siblings, having attended college, I was at a loss for how to navigate what many consider the most basic steps in post-secondary education; class registration, collegiate protocol, and financial aid applications were foreign to me.

On my first day of college, I got to school just as the bell rang for class, but I hadn’t yet learned that in college it’s OK to enter the classroom late. So, I stood outside the closed door for 20 minutes before turning around, heading home and not going back.

My story isn’t unique. There are students throughout our communities with the ability and determination to succeed, who are simply in search of the right tools. That’s why during my time in office I’ve been such a strong proponent of Portland Community College’s Future Connect scholarship program.

Sponsored by the cities of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Portland and supported by the PCC Foundation, Future Connect is geared to high school students who have identified as being the first in their families to attend college or who are from low-income backgrounds.

Students receive a scholarship to attend PCC that also provides two years of individualized academic advising, career-guidance classes, and access to tutoring, cohort support and personalized coaching.

And, the results are phenomenal: Future Connect students in solid academic standing are retained at rates three times higher than similar students who don’t receive the specialized services offered in the program.

With skyrocketing college tuition costs, a generation climbing out of the great recession and a slowly recovering economy, the need for programs like Future Connect is expanding — and in my opinion, is critical to the success of our next generation.

As I look around our state, I continue to see incredible student potential, high aspirations and astonishing barriers to success. Programs like Future Connect need to be accessible to students not only in Beaverton, Hillsboro and Portland but also in communities throughout Oregon.

That’s why in this February’s legislative session I’ll be sponsoring the “Aspirations to College” bill. The bill — HB 4116 — aims to restore funding for a competitive grant available to community colleges throughout the state, to develop scholarship programs and support services for students who are from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college.

After missing the bell on my first day of college, it took me 10 years to complete my undergraduate degree. But from there, I went on to earn my master’s, doctorate and post-doc degrees. I enjoyed a successful career in teaching, which was followed by opening my own small business. Next I launched an exciting career in public policy that enables me to work on policies to support our economy and invest in our students.

It is my responsibility to do everything I can to expand access to educational opportunities for students from all backgrounds — the return on investment we’ll see because of an increasingly educated population is worth this attention. In supporting programs like Future Connect and February’s “Aspirations to College” bill, we are striving to ensure our region’s economic strength by developing a talented, diverse and skilled workforce. This cultivates a more prosperous Oregon.

State Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-District 30, represents Hillsboro in the Oregon House of Representatives.

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