When an accident ended his construction career, the local community college helped him retrain

“Had I gone straight to the university I doubt I would have made it this far.”

Matthew Garner graduated from the Peninsula College Honors Program, where he learned how to conduct research at the university level. He’s now a Ph.D. graduate student in chemistry at Portland State University, and hopes to someday return to Peninsula College as a professor.

Matthew Garner graduated from the Peninsula College Honors Program, where he learned how to conduct research at the university level. He’s now a Ph.D. graduate student in chemistry at Portland State University, and hopes to someday return to Peninsula College as a professor.

My name is Matthew Garner, and I’m a 42-year-old Peninsula College alum, and current Ph.D. graduate student in chemistry at Portland State University.

In the summer of 2010, I had a surfing accident and fractured my cervical vertebra. I was left disabled and unable to provide for my family. After a long and successful career in construction, a job that I loved, I felt empty and questioned what to do next.

I wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of going back to school until I met with an advisor at Peninsula College, and soon I was studying to become a chemist.

Overcoming Fears

The thought of returning to school had created a lot of fear and anxiety because of my age. Everyone wants to fit in on some level, and I thought the generational gap would hinder my ability to relate and connect to a younger generation.

Contrary to my initial fears, I found that since I was older I shared life experiences with many of my professors, namely; Dr. Ben Weintraub, Jeff Zirul, Dr. Joel Pankey, Randy Anderson, and Steve Belz. I also found there were plenty of students my age and even older. Many of my younger cohorts looked up to me and reached out to me for advice.

Some of my anxieties were rooted in ignorance of the process. In my attempt to develop good study habits, I noticed reoccurring advice from my mentors like, don’t get behind, come to lectures prepared by reading or browsing the content beforehand, stay organized, and come to office hours regularly.

I became more comfortable spending time in the math and writing labs, and participating in discussions with my classmates. After my first year, I had developed many friendships and left with the feeling, “Shoot maybe I can do this. Why not me?”

Discovering the Honors Program

Dr. Ben Weintraub noticed my passion for chemistry and offered me an opportunity to work in small research, which gave me an appreciation for hands-on research and how it can make real-world impacts. During one of our lab sessions, he suggested I enroll in the Honors Program, where students are required to develop an independent capstone project.

PC’s Honors Program gives students the ability to learn how to conduct research at the university level, which gave me a considerable head start at Portland State University. I learned how to approach a research project, organize dozens of sources, develop a thesis and a hypothesis, properly analyze the null hypothesis, and think critically.

The director of the Honors Program allows great freedom in project scope and choice. This allows students to pursue topics of interest not offered in the course catalog. I discovered the beauty of academic diversity while collaborating with my peers whose areas of interest was much different than mine. The round table discussions during the honors classes were spirited, while fostering and exercising critical thinking skills.

My project focused on building a high-pressure extraction vessel for supercritical carbon dioxide extraction. I did significant research and wrote a paper on the topic before preliminary approval, then wrote a prospectus for college grant money. I worked in close collaboration with the physics and chemistry department, and collaborated with a local machine shop to fabricate all the valves, gauges, and fittings. Once the vessel was fabricated and assembled, my mentor Dr. Pankey and I pressure tested it, and were ecstatic when we successfully ran a SCCO2 extraction of spinach back at the lab. The vessel now is used at the college for educational purposes.

While I was going through the program I remember thinking how demanding it was, and how we all pushed each other for excellence while still managing all the other coursework. There were more than a few times I questioned whether or not I made the right decision because of the challenge; little did I know that my experience in this program would be the most valuable asset in my grad school application.

Next Steps

I transferred to Portland State University and took with me skills gained at Peninsula College and the Honors Program. I noticed right away how much I missed Peninsula College, and felt blessed to have been able to acquire my associate of science with honors there.

At Peninsula College, the average class size is around 17, which makes it comfortable for everyone to reach out to each other. The smaller class sizes allow for more one-on-one time, more office hour time, and more investment in each student’s success. Had I gone straight to the university I doubt I would have made it this far.

I believe the help that I received at PC is something the faculty and staff would have done for anyone. Whenever a student is putting the work in and asks for help, faculty will bend over backward for them. I have so much admiration for the charming community college nestled in at the base of the Olympic Mountains. I hope to someday teach chemistry here.

Who knows? In five years I will have my Ph.D., and will have the chance to give back to the community and the college I love so much. I hope my story helps others find the strength to become the best versions of themselves, and overcome fear and anxiety to accomplish their dreams and goals. Because a dream without a date is just a wish.

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