July: Meet Aimee Shattuck

Aimee Shattuck is the Director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs at Portland State University.  She was born in San Diego and seems to keep moving north.  She completed her degree in Psychology at San Francisco State University and then came to Portland for graduate school in 2000 where she earned her Master’s in Social Work.  She was the first professional coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center at Portland State and owes her success to many women mentors along the way.  Her two small children keep her busy when not at work dealing with policies, procedures, curriculums, laughter, tears, supervision, budgets, and committee meetings.

When I share my undergraduate story with other colleagues in Student Affairs, they often give me a look like I am a poor, starved puppy that has finally been taken in by a loving family.  By all accounts, my path to Student Affairs has not been a traditional one.  I never lived on campus, never joined a student group, and never went to an event that wasn’t blocking the way to class.  Thinking back on my seven years of undergraduate at City College of San Francisco and then San Francisco State, I have fond memories of classes and campus, but I can’t name one friend from school or one staff person that might still remember me.  I met with an academic advisor as part of my mandatory orientation at City College.  He couldn’t see and spoke very limited English, but he showed me the school bulletin and I followed it to a tee.  I never met with another advisor again.  I worked more than full-time throughout, sometimes on campus.  I studied hard and I got on the Dean’s List every term.  According to the statistics and research, I should have never made it to graduation. 

Neither of my parents went to more than a semester or two of college, but they valued knowledge and education.  We struggled financially growing up, but they always instilled in me an expectation that I was going to college.  They couldn’t help me apply for it or pay for it or figure out how it was going to happen, but I was going.  Luckily, I was stubborn and independent and I qualified for enough Pell grants and work study to pay for my tuition and books.  Through work study I got a short-term job at the District Attorney’s Office which led to a volunteer position with the local domestic violence crisis line.  It was that experience that made the nebulous theories of feminism and social justice real.  Not only did that opportunity help kick start an out-of-the-arm-chair political and civil awakening in my young, self-righteous life, it gave me a concept of what people might do with a college degree.  Like many first generation students, one of my many barriers was having a limited idea of what people would do if they weren’t selling, making, or teaching something.

I started to ask the professionals around me about their degrees and experiences, and decided that I needed to: 1) grow up and 2) get a graduate degree.  I started researching graduate schools by first brainstorming cool cities and then seeing if there were any social work programs there.  I didn’t know that there would be any other way to find a school.  That is the same way I applied for undergraduate, and I put in about the same amount of effort.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get into graduate school that year.  I applied again, put in a lot more time, thought, and effort and was lucky enough to get into the Masters of Social Work program at Portland State University.  The program offered an emphasis in administration and management which perfectly married my inclination to sorting, organizing, and being slightly bossy with my need for community, people, and politics.  I was now firmly on the path to non-profit management.

Meanwhile, I was hungry and worried about paying my rent, so I urgently started looking for work on and off campus.  I applied for an hourly position at the Women’s Resource Center and was hired.  I didn’t know much about it except that I liked the mission statement, it paid minimum wage, and I could work around my class schedule.  It turns out that the Women’s Resource Center was a student organization (which meant nothing to me at the time).  After a couple of months of getting the job the two student coordinators quit.  The Women’s Resource Center was now left with no members, no planned events, and one student who had never been involved on campus before.

A few months later I had found a couple of students who had much more experience, by the end of the year we had sixty active volunteers and we had raised $10,000 at Vagina Monologues.  We were floating high.  The following year we applied for funding for a staff position, the next year I graduated and applied for the new half time Coordinator position.  As the first professional staff person of the WRC, there was not a lot of structure or direction from the University.  The WRC moved from a student group with no members to a professional department in less than two years.  It was the epitome of student activism.  We had absolutely no sense of the organizational chart, what it would take to create new student services, or how it would all pan out, but we were very passionate.  Similarly to my parents, the administrators above me couldn’t tell me how to do it or how to fund it, but they valued my vision, supported me, and wished me luck.

About four years later, the Women’s Resource Center was much more established with solid programs, events, and a nice, big space.  The Dean of Students asked me if I would fill in as the Interim Director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs, just for six months or so.  It was exciting to have a new challenge and there were many.  Now, almost seven years later, I am still in that position, no longer the interim but still challenged every day.  Ironically, many of the structures that we have put in place under my leadership would have made it impossible for me to do what I did as a student.  We now have standards for student group recognition that include having more than one person in the group.  Those enthusiastic, activist-minded students in 2001 would have to work with a cadre of administrators in 2014 significantly slowing down the process.  They would have to determine a plan and answer questions about who the center would report to and how it would be funded. 

Recently someone asked me how I “moved up” in higher education and how they could do the same.  Just like I didn’t know that I was a first generation student until I graduated or that I couldn’t just create a position for myself until I did, I didn’t know that I had moved up until someone asked me that question.  Struggling to come up with some type of sage-like advice, I think I blabbered on about showing up, being reliable, being straightforward and trustworthy.  All a bit contrite, I am sure everyone would give the same advice. We all have our own paths and mine isn’t necessarily one to follow.  The reality is that most of my path has been circumstance, luck, and conditions that can’t be replicated.  A lot happened because of strong women (my mom, the Dean, the Vice President) who didn’t tell me what to do or how to do it, but believed in the unlikely candidate and wished me luck.

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