Brenna’s Journey of Growth in Higher Education

Struggling with shyness and anxiety as a child, I always envisioned myself in the medical field with the minimum amount of interpersonal contact (including, for a few years, a forensic pathologist!). My anxiety and self-confidence worsened as I found myself in an abusive relationship-turned-marriage at the age of 18. The following years were fairly dark - attempted suicides, flunking out of college, eating disorders, poverty and food insecurity, and general misery and despair. I withdrew even more from others for a variety of reasons, and rarely spoke with others unless I had to at work. While I had always been shy growing up, I was also very independent and opinionated; as anyone who has been in or known someone who has been in an abusive situation, you lose a lot of the essence of who you are.

Like many of us, I grew up learning to “stick with it” to be successful; I hadn’t, however, learned that it was okay to change your mind and sometimes “giving up” is the right thing to do, especially when it came to supporting other people you care about. However, after the mental/emotional/physical duress of “sticking with” a bad relationship, and getting kicked out of  school from “sticking with” a major that was NOT for me, I started to realize, hey it’s okay to learn and change. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I know now that changing course while learning is a sign of growth, not weakness.

Fortunately I met people who were supportive and somehow managed to get my act together just before I turned 21. I escaped my marriage (no easy feat if you understand the psychology of domestic abuse) and was admitted back into PSU with some conditions. I changed my major from pre-med to psychology, which I enjoyed and was good at, even if it wouldn’t make me achieve my dream of “doctor” that I had held onto since I was a kid. I went from a 1.8 GPA at the time of academic dismissal to graduating with a 2.85 in 2012 - not great, but it took a lot of A’s to get myself out of the gutter.

In the meantime, I had an administrative office job in PSU’s Office of IT, which is how many women start their professional careers. I began as student office support in 2005 and was hired for a full-time role in 2008. I was the general “office mom” and really embraced the social expectations I had grown up with of how women should be - caregivers and emotional laborists - even in a workplace setting. My role grew more and more to managing the HR functions, and thanks to encouragement from my bosses at the time, I started my MPA with a focus on HR Management in 2012. That program aligned with my career very well - what I learned in my classes I applied to my job, and vice versa. I have been able to focus my job and studies on the things I am really passionate about: helping others be successful, public service, equity & inclusion, and human psychology (e.g. motivation, organizational development). My job has evolved greatly and continues to do so, which is perfect; I now lead the HR, inclusion, and other organizational culture functions in my department and I love it. Despite some bumps and pauses along the way, I graduated earlier this year - 15 years of school at PSU and it’s finally over... for now. Now I get to learn how to be a non-student and what I want to focus my energies on, which is an amazing feeling, especially with all I learned from my years in school about myself and my interests. I am very fortunate that I had supportive people and the privilege of a tuition discount to help get me to the place I am at now.

When I was initially hired in OIT, I was young (20 years old!) and didn’t understand this whole feminism thing like I do today. I admittedly enabled a lot of poor behavior (e.g. excessively cleaning up after people instead of having reasonable expectations for them) based upon my life experiences and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to unwire in my own brain. Through the years, I have learned more leadership concepts that have helped to rewire some more productive behaviors, some of which are very different than how I had always operated: Motivating and teaching others instead of doing things for them; communicating expectations instead of “politely” avoiding conflict; making mistakes and learning from them instead of trying to be perfect; connecting with others on a truly human level instead of avoiding vulnerability. Part of my journey with feminism and leadership is understanding (and rocking) who I am and using that to help others to achieve their goals, especially those who face many systemic social barriers.

On a more personal level, learning from “failure” and being able to “give up” have been extremely valuable lessons for me that took a LOT of time to sink in, and I’m still working on it. Part of that is a big struggle (that I know many of you face) with perfectionism and holding myself to completely illogical standards, just to beat myself up for not reaching them. This causes shame and deflation, not motivation and passion. Because of my journey with failure, giving up, and perfectionism, I have a career that I love, I have more confidence in the imperfect but awesome human I am, I don’t always feel like I need to be right, I am learning to establish personal and professional boundaries, and I have an amazing wife who is the sunshine of my life. Yes, there are still rough moments or days, but they are now a minority instead of a never-ending weight.

If you haven’t seen Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, I highly recommend it; my favorite cry-quote is “there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” This story was hard for me to write, because it’s hard to think about how broken I was. Yet, I don’t think I would change much - I have rebuilt myself and learned so much from my experiences, even the really awful ones. It has led me on a path to supporting others, being active with great community organizations (like OWHE!), loving my career path, having fulfilling relationships with (live) humans, and always always wanting to learn and grow.


Brenna Kutch is the Manager of Culture, Inclusion, and Development at Portland State University's IT Department and can be reached via email at Brenna serves as Co-Chair of the OWHE Annual Conference on the OWHE Board of Directors. 

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