News

PSU grad wins not only international honor, but esteem of her students
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: July 1, 2020
Portland State University alumna Tia Gomez Zeller was almost as excited to hear that she’d won an international award as she was that her students had created a seven-minute video filled with thank-yous for her support and guidance as an advisor at Lane Community College (LCC) in Eugene.
 

“Thank you for always being there for us, not only for me personally, but all the students,” an LCC enrollee says in the video. Another of her LCC pupils thanks Gomez Zeller for “guiding us to be better students.”

Gomez Zeller, who earned her Master of Science in Educational Leadership & Policy from PSU, received the Hugh M. Jenkins Award for Excellence in Community Programming for her commitment to international exchange and global understanding. 

“To be honest, I was very surprised when I received the email about the award,” Gomez Zeller said. “We are going, like many schools, though uncertain times, and we are not able to do our programming like we are normally used to. This award reminds me this pandemic can be an opportunity for us to be more creative and keep supporting students—no matter what.”

PSU College of Education (COE) faculty members learned last week that the NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a nonprofit organization devoted to international education and exchange, had recognized the PSU alumna. Educational Leadership and Policy Professor Candyce Reynolds said that she is proud of Gomez Zeller, who participated as a master’s student in the COE’s Postsecondary Adult Continuing Education program, which is designed for professionals who wish to teach adult learners.

“As one of Tia's instructors, I am so proud of the work that she has done with her students,” Reynolds said. “She was an exceptional graduate student who was active in student government on campus and campaigned on many social justice issues. I knew that she would be a powerful force in her professional life.”
 

Almost five years ago, Gomez Zeller started working as an academic and retention advisor at LCC, one of 17 community colleges in Oregon. She has now advanced to associate director for international retention.

“LCC is lucky to have such a talented and dedicated professional working with their international students, and her students are even luckier!” Reynolds said.

Gomez Zeller has leveraged her current position at LCC to develop a peer mentor program that helps with “the cultural adjustment and integration of new international students, as well as supporting leadership and professional development among continuing students,” according to a NAFSA press release.


In her current role at LCC and while at PSU, Gomez-Zeller advocated for student-centered education, internationalization and cultural competency in higher education. Gomez Zeller said she defines internationalization as “shared collaboration between nations to make each other stronger.” 

 

Student-centered education focuses on the development of each student as an individual, rather than pushing through a particular series of lessons. Cultural competency entails fostering positive and effective cross-cultural relations through valuing diversity and respecting it via applicable policies and practices. 

Gomez Zeller is so passionate about topics such as cultural competency that she used the final paper required for the PACE program as an opportunity for research and analysis of the issue: “Bringing Cultural Competency to PSU from Theory to Practice.” 

“Through this original research, I collected hundreds of surveys and conducted focus groups among PSU students,” Gomez Zeller said. “I worked in developing a cultural competency policy for PSU through student government, and although we weren't able to get that set, I believe we did something more important, which is bringing awareness and changing the culture of PSU to a more inclusive and diverse environment.”

Gomez Zeller is not alone in her desire for change in diversity, equity and inclusion at PSU. PSU was scheduled to hold its sixth annual PSU Culturally Responsive Symposium in Spring Term, but the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 quarantine. The PSU COE last year approved a 2019-22 Strategic Plan, which contains “Foster Inclusive Excellence” among its Imperatives. In addition, many leaders at PSU, including COE Dean Marvin Lynn, have been publicly calling for improvements in diversity, equity and inclusion practices and policies, with outcry around inequities intensifying following the killing of George Floyd in May.

While working at PSU, Gomez Zeller, who is Spanish-English bilingual, held several leadership positions that afforded her the opportunity to collaborate and interact with diverse groups and individuals, including international student life program assistant and international peer mentor leader. She was also the academic affairs director and vice president for the Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU). Gomez Zeller came to the United States from Spain, and her experience as an immigrant inspired her to spearhead a successful initiative to create the ASPSU International Affairs Director position.

In addition to striving to make a difference, Gomez Zeller maintained a 4.0 GPA and collected stacks of credentials while in the COE: the Graduate Certificate on Student Affairs and the Graduate Certificate on Teaching Adult Learners. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from PSU, with a minor in Women’s Studies, preceded by an Associate of Science from Portland Community College.

“I am glad scholars are recognizing me internationally, but I got into higher education to help students,” she said. “I wanted to be the support I wanted and needed when I was in college, and after watching the video my students made I, for sure, know I am doing my job right.”
 

Now she is even more excited about PSU because her sister, Amanda Gomez Zeller, will join the University this year as she works toward a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Linguistics. Amanda Gomez Zeller also plans to enter the COE’s Bilingual Teacher Pathways program, which recruits and retains diverse teachers in the Portland area. Tia Gomez Zeller brought her sister, who turns 20 this week, to the United States five years ago, and she had been studying at LCC prior to enrolling at PSU. 

Technically born in Spain, her sister has a U.S. passport because their mom is a U.S. citizen, but Tia Gomez Zeller still had to adopt her sister to bring her to this country. Tia Gomez Zeller dubbed the situation “complicated,” but said what is clear are the reasons her sister came to this country.

“To have a better life in general and to prove to her the best way to obtain that is through an education,” Tia Gomez Zeller said.

To join Tia and Amanda Gomez Zeller and enroll in the College of Education, visit https://www.pdx.edu/education/preparing-to-apply.

Photo 1: Tia Gomez Zeller said she is thrilled to have received an award, but is even more honored that her students created a seven-minute video telling her how much she means to them.

Photo 2: Educational Leadership and Policy Professor Candyce Reynolds said that Tia Gomez Zeller was an exceptional student. Reynolds said she is not surprised she continues to shine in her role at Lane Community College as associate director for international retention.

Photo 3: A screen shot of the seven-minute video from several of Tia Gomez Zeller's students demonstrates how much she means to them. View the video on the COE Facebook page.

To share stories on the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at jillian@pdx.edu.