Government Relations Director, Portland Community College (2016-2021)
When did you attend the UO and what year did you graduate? What did you study at the UO?
I went to the University of Oregon starting in 2006 and I graduated in December of 2010. I studied business administration in the Lundquist College of Business, and I was a graduate of the Honors College.
Was there a class that inspired you in a new way while at UO?
I took disability studies. I am dyslexic and it was really fascinating to look at a community that I identify with through an academic lens. The reason I went to the University of Oregon was because, at least on the West Coast at the time, there was no other four-year school that had that kind of well-known disability services office the UO offers. Many people told me that college is not for me and I think it was through the UO and through a class like Disabilities Studies at the Honors College that made me realize that we can advocate even if something touches just a portion of our life; it doesn’t have to be all of us but we can do important things in the world. People at the Lundquist College told me just because I learn differently didn’t mean they wouldn’t want me to work hard for my degree and for my honors.
I also took Leadership in Action with Anne Forrestel, a class at the business school which helped apply critical thinking to help small businesses. We worked with a business in Roseburg and just kind of fell in love with the idea of being able to work hard, think critically and help others.
Was there an experience offered by UO that opened your eyes to something new?
I got involved with student government almost my first day on campus. I worked with voter registration, I did internships, and I was always politically engaged. I had been part of student groups and student unions in my high school. It was a pretty politicized environment and I wanted to be a part of a very racially diverse group of folks who were lgbtq+ and I found that group in student government. Student government was the place where I felt most accepted and encouraged so when I came out as lgtbq+ at the end of my senior year, I had been positive for a chunk of time that the lgbtq+ center and the student government was the place that I felt happy and accepted.
What was the number one skill you believe you acquired while at UO?
I think probably the most important skill I developed was having high expectations for my work. The courses I took felt rigorous and I was in an environment where I felt challenged and needed to work hard.
Also, through my political involvement, I think my peers and I learned a lot about how to solve complex problems and how to address a very diverse group of students’ needs, ranging from peers of mine who I know were homeless and in hunger and peers of mine who were incredibly wealthy and had a different idea for what the institution should look like. We worked a lot on safety and sexual assault and I think for all those reasons we were just expecting to be part of solving large-scale community issues and doing that carefully with a budget, which as a business major was how I wanted to go through the world to solve problems, and so I really found all these things to be pretty important learning opportunities for me.
What was something that challenged your way of thinking while at UO?
The diversity of principles we were taught and applied. There was a very rigid set of principles that we learned in the business school. Then I would go over to the Honors College to take incredibly complex classes, classes on complex social issues to which my business school principles didn’t necessarily apply. Still we learned to apply critical thinking across disciplines. I think the diversity of my peers, their experience academically but also in life was probably what I learned from the most.
Share what you like most about the UO today.
If you had asked me a month ago (before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted people in Oregon), I would have probably answered differently, but right now I’m thinking about the UO’s reputation in my political world of being a creative problem solver regarding sanitation, personal protection equipment, in response to COVID not just for students but for the state. I’m proud of the forward-thinking actions and the scientific research that we provide.
Also I’ve been really proud of the way the UO has been trying to recruit more students of color and setting up programs that aren’t driven entirely by cost, instead applying an equity lens. I see the UO spending dollars in providing resources in a way that other institutions have not been able to figure out how to do financially. The UO is providing those scholarships, is providing those wrap around services and is thinking about bringing more diversity to the business school and hiring recruitment faculty. To me, that’s really important.
What is your present or past career/occupation and/or what do you do for fun?
(Interview conducted in 2020; Emma is now a senior consultant at Kinetic West, a social impact consulting firm in Seattle.)
My present career occupation is that I am in Government Relations and I do that at Portland Community College. It is a place where I believe we are meeting the diversity of the community and thinking really creatively about all the different ways somebody could go through education. While a four year degree was a dream of mine and made sense for me, there are so many students who I met that have created such incredible lives for themselves with a two-year degree or even a six-month certificate. I like the idea of the world having more doors for people to walk through, so that’s why I am particularly passionate about the Community College’s mission.
Between being at the UO and working at Portland Community College, I was the executive director of the Oregon Student Association, I worked at Our Oregon as the Field Director, and then the Deputy Campaign Manager on Measure 97. Though that ballot measure did not pass, I think this effort led to the realization by Oregonians that we had a huge K-12 crisis and none of our higher education goals were going to be met without fixing some of the goals of Measure 97. That led to the work of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Student Success, which I had the opportunity contribute to through my work at PCC and which eventually passed.
In my spare time, I’m a Pacific Northwest kid, I like to run and hike and swim all year-round regardless of the weather. I really love to cook with my mom. My mom is a pretty incredible chef and we have a long Italian family history of lots and lots of things that I have yet to learn to make, so we are doing that together.
How did your time at the UO impact your current experiences/successes?
First thing that comes to mind is that I am a better reader, writer, and critical thinker because I got my education at the UO and I really feel like the quality of my experience was incredible, classrooms were small and there just so many wonderful aspects of being a student at the UO. I got to be around people who were pursuing a research degree, so I wasn’t only exploring liberal arts questions, I was exploring questions with people who were going to be scientists and own companies. The other thing I learned is that my point of view is not always the best or right and that the most important thing I can do is listen to people’s experiences and try to make good public policy out of it. I believe that at the end of the day, what I’m probably best at is being a storyteller and understanding the political field in such a way that allows for those stories to be heard.
What does the word “advocacy” mean to you?
The word advocacy means gathering all of the perspectives, on any given issue, and making sure that power, privilege, and oppression do not play a role in stifling people’s experiences or further oppressing parts of our population. Advocacy is about making sure that all those impacted by the issue are in the room and, in an ideal world, have a seat at the table with power.
What advice would you give people advocating for the UO about being an effective advocate?
I think it’s clear from these interviews that the UO means and provides so many things to so many different people and that everyone’s story is very valuable because the university plays so many roles in our state. If you read an economic analysis, it probably includes input from UO economists. If you read about new research in Oregon, it probably involves a University of Oregon scientist somewhere in the process. All of our stories are important because the UO does so much for Oregon.
What is something you wish people knew about the advocacy process?
I wish that people knew that you don’t have to be an expert in the process to participate. I think we wait too long to understand everything about the process and we don’t have to; there are people in government relations that can help. What it really takes is just the courage to tell your story, whether you fumble through it or make a mistake. It’s not just about what you do on the daily basis; your testimony is still important. Your visit to the state capital is still important. Your email is being heard and listened to. It’s pretty special in how much access the public can have to the Oregon Legislature and the process. What is important is that people find the courage and the time to participate.
Share an example or two of a time you felt successful advocating for something important to you.
I was part of a team of lobbyists that advocated for tuition equity – insuring all Oregonians pay the same tuition price regardless of documentation status. The team worked on the issue for ten years; I spent at least 5 years working on it. We eventually won. We told the right stories, we worked on getting the right people to be involved, we shaped the public’s opinion through media, and we got big decision makers, including college presidents, to be with us. It was a really good example of not just the importance of that issue, but also an example of, when you work really hard and you all point the same direction with the same message, you can make significant change.
I also feel really proud of everything it took to eventually get the Student Success Act passed. I was not a lobbyist on the inside by any means by the time it actually came to pass but that was a good lesson on how important it is in government relations to leave your ego at the door. We worked so hard on the ballot measure that proceeded that legislation, I will always be grateful we took the time to run a large scale campaign and educate the public before legislation was crafted. It doesn’t matter if you’re in every room, it really just matters that everybody is a different part of the band. And at different times, I was playing a different instrument, and, in the end, we finally got huge investment in education which we had been desperately needing.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m glad you’re doing these interviews and we have UO Advocates. I think there are so many different ways to be an advocate for the UO and to be appreciative for the experience that we all got to have at a public institution. It’s good to know there are resources and wonderful professors and people who raised money for scholarships I got. There’s just, so many people that I’ll never meet that made that opportunity possible for me; especially when so many people told me that I’m not college material, UO was just there for me.