ATD Student Story: Leah Altman

By nearly every measure, Leah Altman has a life that many people dream of having. She just welcomed a second child into the home that she and her husband purchased in Portland two years ago. She reads and makes jewelry in her spare time, and serves as Development Director at Verde, a Portland-based environmental justice organizations that supports the well-being of local communities.

Leah has only been a professional for a handful of years, and she has chosen to work for organizations that largely provide opportunity for vulnerable Portland residents. In her position with Verde, she has worked on numerous initiatives, such as the redevelopment of Portland’s Cully neighborhood, one of the most ethnically diverse, yet most impoverished areas in the city.

It wasn’t long ago when Leah would have been considered vulnerable, as she faced obstacles that could have led her down an entirely different path.  As a teenager, she faced many challenges in school. Leah had always excelled academically, but she was unaccustomed to a traditional public-school environment in her earlier schooling. She felt “behind” socially and developed anxiety that, paired with bullying from her peers, eventually led to other significant issues. She began to abuse drugs, and eventually found herself homeless. Leah tried to stay in school, but attending many different high schools led her to drop out.

After dropping out of school, Leah was fortunate to have a former counselor who guided her to the Gateway to College program at Portland Community College, an Achieving the Dream network college. She jumped at the chance to enroll, and Leah was immediately immersed in an environment where she could thrive. There, Leah found resource specialists in the Gateway to College program to guide her in finding resources to help her succeed both in and out of the classroom. One of Leah’s resource specialists helped her navigate the college setting and tap into the multitude of opportunities it provided.

Leah describes entering a program that “still had a high school feel to it”, but was supplemented by an adult learning environment, a combination that she had never experienced before. During her time in Gateway to College, Leah joined a variety of student organizations and clubs, including the United Tribes Club and Student Government, where she eventually served as PCC Student Body President. While participating in these extracurricular activities, Leah was still able to manage a full class schedule. She graduated from PCC with honors, receiving an Associate of Science and an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree. From there, she continued her education and earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University.

When asked about how Gateway to College changed the way Leah sees herself and her life trajectory, she shared, “Gateway helped me identify the struggles I was having socially and how to seek to fix them. I learned to focus on my personal strengths while understanding how to improve on my shortcomings.” She remarks that her experiences in Gateway helped her to become more self-aware and responsive to her personal needs.

The student-centered support that Leah received is critical to the success of many vulnerable young people. Leah’s success in Gateway to College is a strong example of why Achieving the Dream works with more than 100 institutions across the nation on a Holistic Student Supports approach. It is imperative that colleges operate with an intentional student-centered design that allows for the maximization of limited resources in support of student success and equity at scale.

Like many young people in community colleges, a caring adult and the right supports helped Leah Altman thrive.



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