Ricky Almeida

School Counselor, West Sylvan Middle School, Portland

When did you attend the UO and what year did you graduate? What did you study at the UO?

I started at UO in the fall of 2004 after spending my first two years of college in community college. First at Chemeketa Community College’s Yamhill County campus in McMinnville and then I moved to Eugene and attended Lane Community College. Next I transferred to the UO. I started as a psych major, and then I decided to give education a shot. Some the education classes, like math for educators, were kind of difficult for me. Later I ended up applying to the Family and Human Services program. My bachelor’s degree is in education, in family and human services. I went to grad school at Northwest Christian University and earned my masters in school counseling. It was nice to be able to stay in the Eugene area after graduating from UO. Even though I was at a different school, we still bought UO season football tickets and we still stayed pretty involved, so we still felt like part of the UO community.

Which class inspired you in a new way while at UO?

My classes at the UO were my first experience with lectures with lots of students. My community college classes had 20-30 people, and here I was sitting in a lecture with several hundred people. One class that really got me excited was taught by Dan Close; I loved listening to his stories and lectures. Kevin Alltucker taught another one of my favorites too.

Intro to Family and Human Services, taught by Dan Close, was a class I could take before getting into the program. Around this time I sought the advice of Dr. Close. I was not sure if Education was the right path for me. Dan had this thing where if you went to his office hours you could be entered into a drawing, and winners of the drawing were invited to his house for dinner. So I actually went to his office hours to ask for advice where he told me, “You should think about school counseling, you should think about family and human services.” I ended up being one of the winners of the drawing which helped us build more of a relationship. I credit him for helping me head in this new direction because I was pretty stuck. To have a professor with so many students take the time and effort to give me that type of guidance is the reason I am here today.

What experience offered by UO that opened your eyes to something new?

Being multi-racial and from a small town, this was the first time in my life where I got to explore and learn more about myself. I grew up in an environment where it was more about assimilation, and blending in, and just kind of making it. Survival skills, just do what you got to do. When I saw people at the UO questioning the norm and not just accepting everything for what it was, I started to question the need to assimilate. That’s part of the reason why right now I’m making sure my daughter – who is multi-racial – is getting more exposure to our Latino heritage. It’s also part of the reason why I started one of the first Middle School MEChA (a student organization that promotes higher education, community engagement, political participation, culture, and history) chapters in the state. We were only the second or third middle school MEChA chapter in the state when we first started about three years ago. If I didn’t attend UO I may not have finally started to discover who I am, I wouldn’t have pushed for something like MEChA at my school. Last year our chapter hosted the 21st annual statewide conference. We had over 475 students in attendance, which was the record for most ever having attended. We were the first middle school to ever host it as well. Speakers included Xiomara Torres, a circuit court judge in Portland, and Guadalupe Guerrero. It was great experience for our students.

What was the number one skill you believe you acquired while at UO?

I think I learned to advocate for those who may not be heard, who are trying to speak and are trying to get their word out, but they are being silenced, typically by the majority. For me that works in multiple ways. A lot of my work is with my students, so I speak up for them and advocating for them, as well as advocating for the families at our school. I would say that is the biggest skill because a lot of times we just go do our own thing and have the privilege to be able to do so. To speak up for others when it pushes you out of your comfort zone is extremely powerful.

What was something that challenged your way of thinking while at UO?

While I wouldn’t say that I am a loner, I do function pretty well by myself and I am used to having to take care of myself. There was a time when I was in the UO Family and Human Services program (FHS) during which I was being exposed to new things than I had ever seen. During my internship and I saw students in homelessness and I had to make reports about things happening to students – I saw a lot of extreme poverty and other difficult things students were experiencing. I have a high level of empathy, so when I saw the situations I had a really difficult time. I would remember going home after one day at my internship, driving down Franklin Blvd. crying in my car because I just wasn’t used to the things I was seeing. I stopped going to classes as much and people were noticing. Peers and staff from my FHS program actually called me and said, “We need to have a meeting with you,” and they wrapped around me. I remember being told that “Maybe this isn’t the route you want to go, but we’re going to be here and we’re going to push you to do a little more stuff and make sure you come to class.” So they fully embraced me, held me accountable, made sure I came to class, made sure I participated and that I wasn’t just alone. That’s when I realized that this cohort was like a family and this wasn’t just about me. Sometimes you can get caught up in thinking that you’re just a number or just part of the system and it was cool to think that in such a big school I didn’t feel like I was here just so that the school could take my money.

Share three words that describe what you like most about the UO today.

I feel like UO is evolving. Physically there are new buildings everywhere, but I am also really impressed with the priorities and focus on diversity and inclusion. The diversity has improved and I feel like the university is making more of a concerted effort now. Especially in the admissions interview questions – which I loved - because when Hope (a high school student experiencing homeless whom Ricky and his family are supporting) was filling out her UO application I go to see one of the questions. The question asked what her role is in improving diversity and inclusion, how is she growing as a person, and basically helping her think about how she will be a good fit because the UO wants to see that students are growing that way, This is huge because we’re in Oregon, which is still extremely white. Students need a place to feel welcomed to and it wasn’t like that when I was here. I had a lot of friends that were not treated very well by some people. Just to see that the university is growing that way is a good thing.

I also think fresh. It just looks so clean and nice. UO just seems to be up-to-date and just “with it.” I see in the news things the UO is working on to keep up. My school district Portland Public Schools, just signed up for the CIS – the Career Information System – through the UO’s College of Education. To be able to stay relevant like that is huge. I mean, when my school district pays UO for that it makes me proud as an alum.

The other word is relevant, which goes with what I was just saying: the UO is not outdated; it’s still kind of “hip.”

What is your present or past career/occupation and/or what do you do for fun?

Right after I graduated from the UO I worked at Looking Glass Community Services in Eugene. I worked for Center Point School. I worked one-on-one with a student who was on the autism spectrum. From there I went to graduate school at NCU (Northwest Christian University) and got my master’s in school counseling. I was a school counselor in Salem for six years – three in elementary and three in middle school. I worked at Salem Heights, Lamb, and Grant Elementary schools, and Crossler Middle School. After Salem, I went up to Portland, where I’ve been at West Sylvan Middle School, and this is my fifth year there. I am on the MEChA statewide board; I’m the middle school liaison for the state. Also I am on the School Counseling leadership team for PPS (Portland Public Schools). In October I was recognized as Oregon State School Counselor of the Year. Now they sent my application over to ASCA, the American School Counseling Association, and I’m in the running for National School Counselor. Next January I will be going to Washington D.C. with the rest of the state winners and they will announce the national winner there. 

For fun, I like to bowl. I competed in my first bowling league not that long ago; I got a 175 average during my first year out there. I like fishing and watch a lot of sports, so we pretty much catch as many Duck games as we can; women’s basketball, football, volleyball, and softball.

What does the word “advocacy” mean to you?

To me, advocacy means looking beyond yourself, recognizing the power of your voice, and standing up for others. Also recognizing that you personally have enough influence to make others listen, it doesn’t hurt to speak up, and it doesn’t hurt to try to make something happen.

What advice would you give people advocating for the UO about being an effective advocate?

Speak from your heart. Look inward and talk about why the University was important to you. Share your success stories, and share success stories about people you know. People might say, “Ah, sounds like me” or “they came from a similar situation, maybe I can do it too.” They may identify with me, a first-generation college student. They might identify with Hope, who is breaking the cycle. I talk to her and others about breaking the cycle a lot, and how you can pave your own way, you can make your own path. Your stories aren’t completely written yet and you have the strength and power to write your own story. I think just putting that out there to other people helps a lot. A simple phone call or a simple letter can help students a lot too, if you are looking to trying to advocate for the University as a whole – it’s really not that hard.

What is something you wish people knew about the advocacy process?

I was browsing the UO Advocates website and saw the templates and that you have everything there; there is no excuse. If you love your school and you love your university, just do it, it doesn’t take a lot of work.

Share an example or two of a time you felt successful advocating for something important to you.

As I mentioned already, I started one of the state’s first middles school MEChA chapters. I built that chapter from the ground up. Through advocacy, promotion, and lots of fundraising we were able to organize and host the 21st annual statewide MEChA’s middle school/high school conference where 475 students from around the state came to listen to Latinx leaders from the community.

We raised enough to pay for all the catering, to pay for the T-shirts, and everything. It had to be well over $3000-$4000. Advocating for that was amazing because I got to see so many students of color who were so excited to be with each other and to experience presentations done in front of them, with them, by people who look like them who are leaders in the community.

I tell my students all the time, that you want to work at a job you love. For me, I never wake up in the morning and say, “I don’t want to go to work today,” I actually love my job. Having come from a household where my parents would put in 60 hours a week. Where they just weren’t home a lot because they were just trying to make enough money to pay the bills.

You want to be doing something you love and you make money for it. I play basketball for an hour with kids on Friday because they earned it because of good behavior, I get paid to do that – which is amazing, and not a lot of people get to say they are getting paid while they play sports.

My biggest focus right now is advocating for my students. I’m the one who calls and talks to their parents and say “what about this?” I am the one who talks with their teachers.  I am part of the school district’s counseling leadership team as well and we’re advocating for more money for school counselors. We are actually getting more funding support though the Students Success Act. If things work out right next year my caseload will be its lowest ever. When I was in Salem, I had 775 students and this next year I am may going to be down to 250.