Better Together: Ellen Weeks & Portland State University

My life journey is intricately shared with Portland State, from my earliest years and on to the foreseeable future. This university has played a central role in my life, almost like a guardian angel: she’s there when I need her, providing me and others in my life with opportunities to move ahead, often when need was greatest.

At the age of ten, I watched my mother scramble to improve an impossible situation: my father moved out, and she was suddenly a single mother with no career and six children to raise. To this day, I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to find temporary jobs while putting herself through night school at PSU. She graduated with a BA in English, while still giving her six children happy childhoods. The degree opened doors for her and she eventually found a career in the life insurance industry. PSU was there for my mother in her time of greatest need.

At 18, I was ready for college and headed optimistically to a private school in Washington, with financial aid, a music scholarship, and $847 of savings. After two weeks there, I fled. In my heart, I knew that I didn’t belong there and that my savings would dry up in less than a year. “It’s just like high school!” I complained to my mother. Luckily, I had also applied to PSU. Determined, I spent days waiting in lines and working with PSU staff until I had registered for a full load of classes for fall term. I felt at home at PSU, with its eclectic crowds of students, each with their own interesting life challenges and passion for education. PSU was there for me, at a time when I didn’t know where I belonged.

Meanwhile, my older sister spent three years at Oregon State before finding herself pregnant. Moving back to Portland with her boyfriend, she gave birth and then finished her degree in mathematics at PSU. She went on to become a successful actuary. My younger brother chose PSU to study mechanical engineering. PSU allowed him to live at home for his first few years, giving him the financial stability to finish his degree on time and with minimal debt. He is now a successful software experience architect. Later, my husband would turn to PSU to reset his career. After completing his MBA at PSU, he transitioned to a leadership role in health care management where he continues to thrive. PSU was there for my two siblings and my husband, providing them with options needed by many with complex life situations.

I graduated with a BA degree in English (with a healthy dose of music courses), in 1986. After a tumultuous summer in Alaska, I found myself back in Portland, eyeing a master’s degree. I had heard that PSU employees could take classes at a discount, so I took a job as an “Office Specialist I” at PSU, where I processed registrations for the Professional Development Center. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I took graduate classes at night while working full time during the day. It turned out I liked working in higher education--the mission, the employees, and the culture all called to me. By the time I finished my MS degree in Education, I had worked in three different clerical positions, allowing me to explore my budding interest in education administration, and deepen my connection to PSU.

My first big break at PSU was during the era of major software conversions. The entire Oregon University System was converting to Banner Finance, a shiny new software solution that would upend how data was processed at PSU. I talked my way onto the project team as a functional expert. I ended the project leading a small technical team dedicated to training and troubleshooting the software for the entire campus. I became a crazy optimistic project manager, and it turned out that PSU had many projects for me to manage!

I went on to lead multiple conversions for the university: the conversion to Banner Human Resources; the migration from Blackboard to Desire to Learn; the migration to a new data warehouse and business analytics tool; and perhaps my favorite project, the migration to the Google suite of applications, including calendar, email and documents. Amid all these projects I married and had two children. Torn by my commitment to motherhood, I tried to walk away from my career at PSU, only to be offered part-time work allowing me to continue both passions: project management and caring for my family. The opportunity to keep my career alive while raising my children was perhaps the greatest gift of all from PSU.

Now, as Associate Chief Information Officer for PSU, I don’t get to manage as many projects. My children are almost completely grown up, and I am back to full-time work. I have transitioned to leading teams, strategy and culture. I find this role to be the greatest and most satisfying step of my career: leading and managing others is some of the most challenging work I have ever done. This is stated best by an ascetic monk being asked about the biggest challenge of living a life with no possessions. His response? “Other monks.” The rewards of leadership are subtle but powerful, akin to the rewards of motherhood.  

It turns out that PSU is not finished giving to my family and me. When he was only 15, my son shared with me the hard news that his girlfriend was pregnant. This shattered my world, but once his daughter arrived I got back to the business of mothering. She is now almost two and my son is preparing to attend college this fall. He looked around and PSU spoke to him: he needs a flexible, supportive university in proximity to his child whom he has grown to cherish and love. After recently touring the PSU student-parent and child-care resources available to him, he came home glowing. “They were so welcoming! I know I have chosen the right university.” My son is not so different from other students at PSU--many face their own unique challenges. PSU will offer him more than an education, it will provide him with a community and a place to belong. He is excited about his upcoming college years. He’s planning on studying Finance, knowing he can still be deeply involved in raising his daughter.

I have grown up at PSU. I started as a confused but happy 18-year-old undergrad student and have transformed into the leader I have become today.  Along the way, I have found family and camaraderie: I have friends at PSU, some that started the same year I did, over 30 years ago! It is hard to imagine what my life would have been like if PSU was not here for me and my family. In so many ways, and over so many years, PSU has always been there for me, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

 

Ellen Weeks is the Associate Chief Information Officer at PSU. She is slated to serve on the Wise Professional Panel at the OWHE Annual Conference this February. She may be reached via email at ellen.drake.weeks@pdx.edu

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