Creating future leaders: PSU’s Class of 2019

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Next week, Portland State University students will walk across the stage and graduate in one of six ceremonies spread across three days. They are among 6,000 students graduating in 2019. About 33% of the overall graduating class are from communities of color and international graduates come from 56 different countries including India, China and Saudi Arabia. As an urban university, 83% of PSU’s students call Oregon home.

Let’s meet some outstanding PSU grads.

Ried Gustafson

At 31, Ried Gustafson has already lived several lives. He served in the Navy from 2008 to 2015. He obtained a political science degree from PSU. He’s called Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California home.

Now he’s graduating with a certificate from PSU’s Gender, Race and Nation program and packing his bags for New York. Gustafson has been accepted to the American Studies doctoral program at New York University.

Gustafson was a McNair Scholar. The program is designed to help underrepresented and low-income first generation students prepare for Ph.D. programs.

“It gave me the chance to kind of develop the language around the project that I want to work on for my dissertation,” Gustafson said.

As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, he became fascinated with indigenous studies and settler colonialism as a structure.

“Our people were colonized by the Spanish and now by the U.S. government,” he said. “So I hope that my work in the future can look at look at colonialism as power structure and also look at ways to potentially dismantle it, or ways for indigenous people to survive within kind of really violent system.”

Once he graduates with his Ph.D., Gustafson hopes to start teaching.

“In my undergraduate program, I didn’t have a lot of people who were Native that I could look up to in that position of power,” he said. “It’s important to me to strive for that to show other Native students that it’s possible to critique the systems that have been so oppressive to us in a very public way.”

Learn more about Ried >>

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Don and Jacob Sheeran

Father’s Day will be extra special for Don Sheeran this year.

The 58-year-old father of three will be graduating from Portland State University with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering alongside his son, 23-year-old Jacob Sheeran, who is graduating with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering.

To make it even sweeter, Don’s two daughters are also Viking grads.

The older Sheeran spent the last eight years going to school part time for his degree while working at CenturyLink, where’s he’s logged 22 years.

“I’ve had a few people raise an eyebrow wondering, why aren’t I just retiring?” Don said. “Well, I am retiring, but I’m retiring up. I’ve got a number of good years left in me, so I’m gonna put them to good use.”

“It’s really motivating to see how hard he works,” Jake said. “It’s honestly impressive.”

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Leila Hawana

Music and the marimba had taken Leila Hawana on international excursions to places including Belgium and France the year after graduation, but she soon realized travel for days on end wasn’t for her. Hawana wanted a different kind of lifestyle. One she thought a degree in computer science could offer.

Hawana’s father and fiance both work in computer science, so she knew what the day-to-day looked like. Life would be more predictable and she could still utilize her unique way of thinking. A bachelor’s in math also helped get her started.

But Hawana wanted to be sure switching to computer science would be worth giving up filling her life as a professional musician who constantly performs.

She enrolled in Portland State University’s Accelerated CS program with the tentative plan to complete her master’s. The nine-month program prepares students who already have a bachelor’s degree in any non-CS background to start the PSU Computer Science M.S. program.

“I started from scratch,” Hawana said.

But she felt moving forward was the right decision and quickly embedded herself in the program, which included volunteering with We in Computer Science — a PSU student group focused on diversity and inclusion in computer science — and helping grow the mentorship program. She also became an advocate for anyone who needed one.

“Every time I taught a class, every time I had an interaction with someone, I made it perfectly clear that if they ever wanted to talk to me, not just about class, but about mentorship, career development — anything like that — I will go and sit with you, give you advice or help you through anything,” Hawana said. “And believe it or not a handful of students are still taking me up on that.”

She graduated with her master’s in computer science in December.

Now, she’s working at Intel as a machine learning engineer. But she hasn’t left PSU just yet. Hawana is also working as an adjunct professor. She co-teaches Computers, Sound, and Music at the moment — the perfect marriage between her two passions.

Learn more about Leila >>

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Asma Khan

The topic of Asma Khan’s age never comes up with her classmates at Portland State University. “None of them really have any idea,” Khan said.

And yet, when the civil engineering major walks on stage to get her diploma this spring, she’ll be the youngest of more than 6,000 graduates at PSU to do so.

Born in California, Khan moved to Portland as a small child and was homeschooled for most of her primary school years. She skipped “a couple of grades” along the way and entered an early college program in high school that allowed her to complete her high school credits at community college. Khan enrolled in PCC at 13 and entered PSU at 16, completing her final two years toward a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

“In my two years of attending PSU as a fully veiled Muslim woman, I never once encountered a hostile incident or ever felt unwanted,” Khan said. “My teachers, advisors, and classmates were the most welcoming, friendly and helpful people, and I am thankful to them for making this journey so much easier and memorable for me.”

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Anchitta “Kitty” Noowong

As a film student at Portland State University, Anchitta “Kitty” Noowong likes telling stories creatively — particularly the female experience as seen through women’s eyes. She also focuses on people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

“I want to tell the story of these people who wouldn’t get to tell their own stories,” she said.

Controversial subjects aren’t off limits either. Noowong has made films talking about sexual assault, underage drinking and gun control.

She pulls from her own experiences as well. At 17, Noowong moved to Pullman, Wash. with her single mother, leaving behind their home in Thailand.

Noowong knew she wanted to study film even at a young age and sought opportunities to do so as soon as possible. She attended a summer film camp with the NW Film Center in Portland, where she met Mark Berrettini, the director of PSU’s film school.

The rest is history.

“This is my place,” Noowong said.

Since moving to Portland, she’s flourished. Her documentary short “Not Yours” won Juror’s First Place Winner in the student film category at ACT Human Rights Film Festival in 2017, and her recent short "Sleepover" was selected for the Portland Film Festival.

Post-graduation, Noowong plans to work as a freelancer in Portland.

“In film, there’s no straight path,” she said.

But if she indulges in her dreams, the future screams Hollywood.

“I gotta dream big right?” Noowong said. “To screen my film, in a theater in Hollywood, that would be my ultimate dream. To just sit there and watch my film on the big screen.”

Learn more about Kitty >>

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Sean Oulashin

Portland State student, cardist and magician Sean Oulashin — who is graduating this spring in film studies — boasts one of the the largest cardistry Instagram followings with nearly 45K followers. (Find him at @notseano). So what is cardistry? Also known as playing card flourishes, it is the "aesthetically pleasing motion of shuffling playing cards," he said. 

"It's very visual and it's immediately cool. It's kind of like any other thing, like juggling, you have to drop a lot of things to not drop things later," Oulashin said. "I just want to share cardistry with the entire world if I can. It's something that's really brought a lot of joy to my life and I feel like has the potential to bring a lot of joy to a lot of other people's lives."

Stories by Katy Swordfisk
Photos and videos by Heidi Williams