A STEP above

By Misty Bouse

Couple builds a better future with a boost from the PCC’s STEP Program

Portland Community College alum Dwayne Friedman spent his childhood hopping from motel to motel, Vegas to Detroit, with his single mother who dropped-out of high school at 15.

“I grew up underprivileged, not knowing my biological father or other family,” he said. “I was always the new kid in school moving and moving.”

But there was a bright spot: he had caring teachers that pushed him. Friedman said it made a huge impact and he wondered if he could do that too.

“I grew up around people who didn’t expect me to succeed,” Friedman added. “I wanted to prove them wrong as opposed to taking the easy route. I really wanted to do something meaningful,” he said.

He was the first in his family to go to college, but after two terms with little to no support he left and found a job instead. For years he worked long hours in jobs like scientific glassblower before starting a home-based business where he makes memorial pendants with the remains of loved ones.

Now married, he wants more security after the pandemic hurt his business and caused his wife Isis to lose her job. Even though his household is on food stamps, he enrolled to PCC to get certified teaching welding. At the college, he has received the support he needed to succeed — discovering Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and qualifying for the STEP Program.

As part of the program, he periodically visits with a counselor. Because he is already on SNAP benefits, STEP not only buys him new boots ($250 value) but also safety gear required for his welding class and pays for a portion of his tuition.

“This STEP support is the only reason I was abIe to stay in school and get through the welding program,” said Friedman.

The PCC STEP Program serves students across all campuses with college onboarding and retention, career planning, and employment preparation. The STEP program can also help with the cost of books, fees, tools, personal protective equipment and some tuition expense. STEP currently offers six academic coaches districtwide to ensure student success and retention. Examples of some students supported are those in the career technical, ESOL and GED programs. Often, the STEP students are the first in their family to attend college. STEP students often have many barriers blocking their way to college or have trouble staying in college.

There are coaches and pathways to step into career technical education and into one’s talent and promise. Tapping into all the resources students qualify for makes a big difference – SNAP and STEP deliver much-needed aid.

“STEP is a nationwide grant program that supports low-income students who receive SNAP benefits to earn short-term, stackable certificates to get to work quickly in living wage jobs,” said Career Pathways and STEP Manager Jennifer McBratney. “PCC works directly with a consortium of other community colleges that provide the same services. We work with a lot of students who lack basic needs and can refer them to our PCC benefits navigators.”

The STEP program can also benefit from parties like family foundations and sponsoring businesses through the PCC Foundation. That is potent as every dollar spent on supporting STEP students is reimbursable back to the program from the national program. In essence, it doubles available support for students like Friedman.

Friedman takes 15-18 credits per term and sports a 4.0 grade point average, placing him on the President’s List with “Highest Honors.” His work ethic impressed his instructors so much that they hired him as the first student to assist aviation maintenance program students with their welding. This spring, he landed his dream job working for the nonprofit Impact NW as a pre-apprenticeship instructor teaching the basics of welding and manufacturing to underprivileged 18 to 24 year-olds in Washington County.

“I’ve been in these peoples’ shoes and now I get to help uplift them,” he said. “It’s amazing!”

In the family

His wife, Isis Friedman, earned her GED at PCC when she was 16 and thought about getting into hair design. Her mother, an artist, and her father, a mechanical engineer, inspired her eventual dream of designing automobiles.

“I went to art school at 24, and had lots of fun designing furniture and lighting and consumer products,” she said.

Eventually she outgrew her job and got distracted by life, working in restaurants and bars, until the pandemic left her unemployed. However, she was inspired by her husband’s educational journey. She worried she would not be federal-aid-eligible, but after talking with an advisor, Isis learned that the STEP Program would help support a one-year certificate in the computer aided design and drafting (CADD) program, which was she was passionate about.

“This STEP support is the only reason I was abIe to stay in school and get through the welding program,” she said.

After graduating this December, she is a full-time designer. Hired in the PCC welding program, she makes project files and blueprints and documents safety protocols for effective use to help students.

“Without qualifying for STEP Program benefits like tuition assistance, there’s no way I could, or we could, be in school at the same time. I did not qualify for financial aid due to my old degree. But STEP made the difference!” said Friedman.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article here.

Misty Bouse

is a program specialist in the Office of Public Relations & Communications at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon.