Portia graduating from Portland State University, 2021.
Portia O’Connell is a Renaissance Scholars alumnus. She attended Portland State University and earned her bachelor’s degree in community health promotion with a minor in business administration. After graduating in 2021, Portia moved to Montana to pursue her master’s degree in public health at the University of Montana. She now lives in Missoula with her husband and dog, spending time outside whenever she can. Recently, Portia accepted a role as a program lead for the Office of Health Research and Partnership at the University of Montana.
Why did you decide to attend college?
I think my biggest motivator for going to college was because I had two parents that didn't, and I kind of saw the struggle that came with that, and I knew that that was something that I wanted to do. I knew the benefit of having a college degree, especially in this day and age. I feel like when my parents were growing up, you could get away with work experience and just kind of working your way up. Right now, I feel like if you don't have a degree, there's only so far you can go. I knew that I wanted to be able to provide a better life for my future children and be able to help support my family when that time came. So, that was one of my big motivators for getting my degree.
How did you choose Portland State? What was your experience there?
I was looking at the University of Montana or Montana State for my undergrad. But financially, I knew that I couldn't figure it out. The thought of taking on that much debt right off the bat just didn't seem like it was that wise of a choice. I knew I wanted to get my master’s degree, so I would just come out to Montana when I was ready to get my master’s degree.
One of my main reasons for going to Portland State was financial. It's funny because as I went through college, I didn't realize how that decision benefited me. Not only on the financial aspect of things and not really taking on that much debt, but also just being 18 and freshly out of high school, I thought that I was ready to, you know, go move away, do my own thing. I actually came home almost every weekend to see my mom and do my laundry, because we do have such a close relationship. I think going to Portland State helped me because I don't think I would have been emotionally ready or prepared to leave my family like that. Even coming out here to get my master’s degree...when I came out here in 2021, I'm 21 years old and I was still homesick. I still missed my mom, so I couldn't imagine if I would have done that at 18.
How do you think being the first person in your family to attend college affected your experience?
I don't know if it's so much affected my college experience so much, but definitely leading up to it. I did College Possible in high school, which I think was super helpful because I didn't have any sort of guidance. You know, I didn't have an older sibling that was like, “Okay, you need to make sure you apply for FAFSA, and you need to apply for these scholarships, and here's where you go to do that”. I was really out on my own.
After I had learned about all this stuff in College Possible, I would be going to my mom and letting her know, “Okay, my FAFSA opens up on October 1st, I need you to take time out of your day so you can sit down with me so I can make sure I get this taken care of”. My mom was also learning this with me as I went through and now she does financial education for all these younger kids. So, she's relaying all this information to them. I had a lot of friends where their parents went to college and were reminding them, but it was almost like I had to remind my mom, because we had no idea.
Portia with her husband and mother on the day of her graduation from the University of Montana, 2023.
What surprised you the most about college?
I think the biggest thing that surprised me was how much everything cost. Not even having to do so much with school, but with school and outside of school. Like how much a textbook costs, and when you really look at it, how much just one college credit is worth. I was always super big on checking my bill and making sure everything was adding up. It made me grow a deeper appreciation because I was paying for my education, so I needed to make sure that this wasn't my money down the drain.
One thing that really helped was my freshman year, I took a personal finance class as a requirement for my business minor, and that was by far one of the most useful classes that I could have ever taken. If anyone could take that I would highly recommend it. Actually, I think it's something that should probably be offered at the high school level before you end up going to college, so you just have that information.
Portia and her husband on Blue Mountain in Missoula, summer 2023.
Portia and her husband on their honeymoon in Lake Tahoe, summer 2022.
What advice would you give a Renaissance Scholar in their first year of college?
Enjoy all the extracurriculars and even enjoy going to class. For my undergrad I only had a year and a half where we were able to go out and do stuff and be in class because then COVID hit and, you know. I've always enjoyed online learning. I enjoy taking things at my own pace. But when the opportunity to go to an in-person class was taken away because of COVID, it did make me realize how lucky I was to be in class and actually be able to have conversations with my peers about what we read or an assignment. Even being able to attend sporting events. I wish that I wouldn't have taken that for granted.
What was it like to pursue your master’s degree? What are you doing now?
I knew that I always wanted to get my master’s degree. I was looking at both Portland State and the University of Montana and comparing the two. I applied for both, but I knew that I really liked the University of Montana because public health is such a broad field and there's a ton of different directions that you can go in. And I wasn't really sure I could commit to one area of public health, whether that be biostatistics or epidemiology. I knew that with the program at Montana, it covered everything. I applied in November of my last year of undergrad for the early application deadline and ended up getting into the program. So, I found my way out here.
This past year, I was a graduate research assistant working on a public health wage study across the state of Montana. I just accepted a job with the University of Montana, working on workforce development and apprenticeship programs with current students and getting them that exposure at the undergrad level. It's funny because when I started this wage study, I was just excited to get some experience. I didn't realize how much this would impact me because when you think of public health, you don't really think of the workforce development side of things like making sure that we have adequate trainings and making sure that people are being paid what they deserve based on experience and education. That’s something that I've grown really interested in over the last year. So, I'm really excited to be able to take that forward with a job and be able to advocate for my field.
How did the Renaissance Scholarship affect your college experience?
The Renaissance Scholarship was super helpful because I did not have to take out very many student loans. I took out a couple of student loans my first year and then that was it. All in all, my undergrad, I was only $5,500 in debt. That was because the Renaissance Scholarship helped me out so much, covering the majority of my schooling. I think that's partly why I was okay going to get my master’s and taking on a little bit more debt for that, because I didn't have a ton of debt in my undergrad.
What do you like to do for fun?
Being in Montana, the Clark Fork River goes right through town. Over the course of the summer, my husband and I have spent a lot of time out on the river floating it. We're an hour and a half away from Lake Como, so we've done a couple overnight camping trips and paddle boarding during the day. I have a five-year-old Black Lab who loves the water, so we spent a lot of time taking her out on the water too, and we finally were able to get her up on the paddle board. I love to be out on the water, so I take every opportunity I can to do that.
What advice would you give a Renaissance Scholar who's graduating soon?
When I finished my graduate degree, I was really stressed out about finding a job and wanted to make sure I had one lined up when I finished so that I wasn't in this weird limbo phase. But I would say if someone had the ability to just take a month or two months off before they get a job and just enjoy life, enjoy that you just completed your college education. Just take a moment to bask in that and celebrate that, and also feel all your other feelings that come with finishing.
Portia graduating from the University of Montana, 2023.