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Fearless graduates

More than 6,000 students—the largest class in Oregon—will graduate from Portland State in two ceremonies on Sunday, June 15. Eddie Ramirez, Val Holdahl and Ailene Farkac are three graduates who didn’t let anything hold them back.

Four years ago, Eddie Ramirez was a high school valedictorian and student body president with a secret. He didn't tell anyone—not even his school counselor—that his parents brought him to the United States without documentation at age 1.

He was admitted to five colleges, but his family couldn't afford tuition and his immigration status prevented him from receiving federal financial aid. Just when he thought he would have to attend a community college, a high school teacher offered to cover his tuition for his first year at Portland State. He later won a diversity scholarship to help pay for school.

At PSU, he found the support he needed to start telling his story publicly and become an advocate for other Latino and undocumented students. He will speak about his experience at the morning commencement ceremony.

This spring, he received a full-tuition scholarship to the elite dental school at Oregon Health & Science University. He hopes to have a private practice and provide dental care to low-income families, a goal he has worked toward since he was 8.

"It's something I never expected; I was so caught up in fear," he says. "It's turning an obstacle into a blessing."

Val Holdahl's first memories of Oregon are at the airport at age 3, when her parents adopted her from Russia. She was born with a significant birth defect to her leg, part of a generation of children with high rates of health problems from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She remembers hundreds of people waiting for her at the airport and being afraid of her new mother.

 As she grew up in Dundee, an anonymous sponsor paid for dozens of surgeries to amputate her foot and correct her knee and hip at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland. For 18 years, she had to be fitted with new prosthetic legs as she grew.

At PSU, she became a student ambassador, peer mentor and sustainability leader and received a scholarship for outstanding academic achievement from the College of Urban and Public Affairs. She plans to go to law school and work on public interest and sustainability issues such as gentrification in low-income communities.

She credits her mom, who was born missing part of her hand, with giving her the confidence to do anything and not feel different. "I've always been around someone who understands me," she says.

Ailene Farkac would give anything to have her kids know her as the mom who has a Ph.D. instead of the mom who went to prison. But she knows her two-year prison sentence is a big part of who she is and how she came to Portland State.

After years of addiction that led to selling drugs, prison helped her turn her life around, she says. While there, she got sober and created a tutoring program that helped six women get their GEDs in six months.

After she was released in 2008, she was a single mother of three working at Wendy's and clinging to her sobriety. She enrolled at Lane Community College in Eugene, where she excelled academically.

Farkac then transferred to PSU, joined the Honors College, became a McNair Scholar, won scholarships and worked as an intern with Mercy Corps helping former prisoners transition back to the community. She is graduating summa cum laude with a 3.96 grade point average and plans to apply to doctoral programs in social justice.

"Without the support of the Honors College, there's no way I would be where I am right now," she says. "They are not just supportive; they are proud of me. There were a lot of times when it was hard for me to be proud of me."


WHEN: Sunday, June 15
10 a.m. Liberal Arts and Sciences
3:30 p.m. Professional schools and colleges

WHERE: MODA Center, Rose Garden Arena



  • The University will award approximately 4,375 bachelor's, 1,625 master's, and 90 Ph.D. degrees.
  • Top bachelor's degrees: psychology, social science, criminology and criminal justice
  • Top master's degrees: social work, education, special education
  • Graduates come from 44 states, plus the District of Columbia, and 51 countries.
  • The youngest graduate is 19, and the oldest is 72.


Commencement ceremonies will be webcast live June 15 on as well as broadcast on OPB Plus live at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. (Comcast ch. 310, Verizon ch. 470).


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