Gateway Grad Leah Rapoza: Education can change people’s futures

“Gateway to College completely changed my life trajectory. I came from generational poverty, so college was never in the question. But through Gateway, I learned that education can change people’s futures.”

From an early age, Leah understood her family’s adverse economic circumstances and the challenges these would pose throughout her life, especially in her educational path. As a young child, because of how often her family had been evicted from their homes, she recalls her main goal for the future as “just being able to pay rent on time.” By the time Leah was ten years old, she had moved 26 times. Having come from a background of extreme generational poverty, Leah was expected to contribute financially to her family. As a result, she dropped out of school at the age of ten in order to be able to help support her family.

As a teenager, Leah decided to pursue a GED in order to seek a more competitive wage. Through Portland Community College’s YES to College GED program, she learned about Gateway to College and was encouraged by YES to College staff to apply for the program. Leah was enthusiastic about the prospect of having the opportunity to attend college, something she had never considered as a possibility. While her mother was reluctant at first, Leah ultimately applied to Gateway to College and was admitted into the program at PCC.

When Leah joined the Gateway to College program at 16, she entered with zero high school credits, a fifth-grade education, and limited confidence in herself and her academic abilities. “It was a lot harder than the GED program. I had never really been to school, so I wasn’t familiar with the material,” Leah recalls. But with the unwavering support she received from her peers and Gateway to College staff, particularly her resource specialist, Leah excelled in the program.

Leah earned her diploma in 2008, and continued to take classes at PCC. She received her Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer (AAOT) degree, and went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Science and Master’s degrees in Education and Special Education from Portland State University. Leah was the first member of her family to receive a college degree, with the exception of her brother, who she says was allowed by his family to pursue an education “because he’s a boy.” She is the only one in her family to have earned a Master’s degree.

Leah attributes much of her academic success to her experience in Gateway to College, and especially to her resource specialist, Regina Davis. “The resources specialists are what make the program. They really care about your education. They’re here for the good and the bad.”

When we asked Leah what she would consider to be her greatest achievement, she replied: “I don’t know. Probably my education because there were a lot of roadblocks in the way. I have all of my degrees on my wall, including my GED and high school diploma from Gateway. I’m almost even more proud of those because of how hard I struggled during those times and it was the people at Gateway that made it possible for me to do that.”

Leah’s story shows that despite the adversity a student might face in pursuit of an education, with self-determination, opportunity, and the adequate and appropriate external supports, one can achieve excellence.

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