Isatou Barry – Portland State University

<b>Isatou Barry</b> – Portland State University

A Finance major with a minor in Economics, Isatou immigrated to the US from The Gambia and started her collegiate journey at PCC. She transferred to PSU and plans to go to law school one day in preparation for public service work.

Portland State University, Class of 2020

Degree: Finance Major and Economics Minor


Why did you pick your area of study?

Growing up as a little girl in The Gambia, I have always had some interest in the way businesses work, the impact of business ideas on the economy, the working-class, and poverty in societies. So, I decided to study Finance and Economics and I am really enjoying the balance of numbers and reading that happen in these classes for me. In one class, I am analyzing numbers and in the other one, I am looking at concepts and policies and overall relationship etc.

These disciplines will help me to get a better understanding of the way resources are allocated in a country, among countries, people, and also who has the power to implement and make these policies. Through the finance program at PSU, I will learn the impact corporations, investments and the fiscal economy has on the economic policies a government makes, and how it greatly influences some of the action steps our politicians embark on. My long-term goal is to go to Law school to do a program that will get me more equipped and ready for public service, and to be an advocate for the fair and just allocation of resources within all communities and for all people-not just for the rich. A law program later on will provide me specialized knowledge, to be able to advocate for the issues I believe in.


What did you think about college before you attended?

Huh! In high school, everything I knew about college was literally what I watched on TV and shows…some fun and parties, making friendships etc. but I also knew that it was going to challenge me and I was going to learn a lot from the experience. I love learning and so I enjoy being in a classroom and learning new materials with others. There’s something for everyone in college, you can have fun, build relationships and learn at the same time! You just really have to learn on prioritizing what is important at each stage and you will also learn to manage your time while at the same time being okay.


How do you think being a first-generation student has affected your college experience?

I feel like being a first-generation college student in an American classroom is harder than most people would understand. You start college as the first in your family to be there, and you have to navigate around your own goals, college resources and a career path on your own (and of course I had the support of mentors and close friends who are in this journey with me). For me, each time I am in school, I feel like I am there not only for myself but for my family and even for other little girls from The Gambia who grew up just like I did but never got a chance to go to school. This can sometimes feel like a huge burden to carry with you, and you get so critical of yourself when you fail a class or when your GPA drops…. but for me, this has been my inspiration over the past three years. I also understand that sometimes we fail in life and it is okay to fail. A bad grade is okay, and it happens. What matters is about what we do after we fail and understanding this really helped me.

In addition to this, navigating a career path is very difficult for first generation students. It was and is still hard for me. It is sometimes hard to get your foot in the door even if you are smart, but I am so grateful for the many mentors who’ve made this journey a little bit easier for me in many different ways and places. So, as a first-generation student, it is really important to find a small, genuine circle of adults, peers and friends who truly and genuinely love you, are willing to support you, understand you and see the best in you. You will have to learn to recognize these people from the crowds.


What do you love about Portland State?

I love the location of my school. It is in the center of the city and I love the city! It is also green.

I am also a part of the School of Business Honors Program and I really love this program because it is very hands-on. We aren’t reading books only, but we are solving real life problems and also engaging with one another. I love the discussions because, to be honest, the best way I learn is to have conversations with others even when I don’t agree with them (and sometimes I don’t). But I learn a lot from that more than I do in reading a book or a concept.

Also, I have built a few relationships with couple a professors and Admin who are open to conversations, and through these conversations, I have started understanding more about what I want to do with my college education.


How was the experience of starting somewhere new?

Before moving to the USA and enrolling in an American college, I always thought I was smart, and I knew I was smart. However, if I am honest, there are times that I felt really challenged in an American classroom. There were times when I questioned my intelligence even though my GPA was at 3.8 and above sometimes, and even though others in the room thought I was smart. I sometimes felt challenged in a class that only used American examples and concepts, because I am an African woman from a different cultural and education system.  But also, there is always a constant urge to prove myself worthy, for group projects and in class discussions. I feel like this is an urge that most students of color like myself feel in an American classroom. Some people in the room are even surprised that you are able to put your thoughts together in a discussion, they are surprised that you get a 100% on a writing project, they are surprised that the Prof asked them to ask you for help. Overall, they are surprised that you are smart.


What is your favorite subject or class you’ve taken?

My favorite classes were my writing, economics, political science and business research classes! I also enjoy working with numbers sometimes, analyzing company finances and making future predictions, so I also enjoyed my finance class at PSU this quarter.


What has been the most impactful experience during your time in college?

College has been such an impactful journey in many different ways but sometimes for me, what really counts is the little things like: my Math Professor inviting me over to my First Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner, and I met her family, was welcomed into their home. That meant a lot to me. Some of my professors who really took the time to get to know me better as a person over coffee, tea or lunch. At PCC, I also traveled down to DC with the District Student Council to lobby politicians to increase funding for community colleges, FAFSA, SNAP and Health benefits among a wide range of issues. But also, college was a moment for me to grow as a person and to learn how to manage my time and to prioritize what was important at the moment.


If you have ever attended our scholarship brunches, how did those go for you?

It was really great to meet Irving and Stephanie, and they were very genuine in their conversations. I am thankful for meeting them. Fun Fact: they knew about The Gambia and Irving’s family member lived in The Gambia for some time, so we connected a little bit around that, and it is not every day that I get to meet Americans who know where Gambia is on the map..hahaha!


What does it mean to you to have been chosen as a Renaissance Scholar?

It really meant a lot to me to be chosen as a Renaissance Scholar. It meant that the committee believed in me, and in my goals, and they are ready to support me to achieve the goals that I have set for myself. I also loved the Renaissance family and the other scholars who I got to meet at our luncheons. Each one of them has a unique story!! As a woman, dreaming for college isn’t the norm where I come from and so I am constantly reminded of that too, but I have learned to ignore those voices and just focus on what’s right. The Renaissance Scholarship is supporting me towards focusing on college, and with this support, I feel like I have what I need in order to succeed in college.


Any advice for students applying for the Renaissance Scholars program?

Just be you when you are applying for the program. Write your essays well in such a way that the committee feels like they already know you without meeting you. Be honest and take the time to write your essays. Have a friend or a mentor review and make edits for you. Have a goodnight’s sleep the night before the interview, you want to be relaxed and look engaged!


Each year, the Skidmore prize honors four young Portlanders who work every day to make Portland a better place and to preserve the community-oriented nature of our city we all know and love. Isatou was selected as a winner. Read more about her and the amazing work she does here: