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Finding yourself while finishing your degree online

A person kneeling in a black vest with yellow roses behind them.

How a longtime advocate in the LGBTQI+ community went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in her 50s online with Oregon State

By Elena Moffet

At 54, Michelle Harris finally knows what she wants to be when she grows up. 

“I’m an advocate,” Harris says. “That’s who I am.”

Growing up as a member of the LGBTQI+ community, Harris understood the power of organizing from an early age.

“I got involved, back in the ’90s, with the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon, which is the oldest LGBTQI+ nonprofit in Oregon, and I met people who were like me — outcasts and misfits,” she says with a laugh. “We raised money for charity and we were very outspoken.” 

Harris credits these early experiences with helping to shape her advocacy and as one pillar in her eventual decision to pursue a degree in women, gender and sexuality studies online with Oregon State University.

But she also had another important point of inspiration — working in health care.

As a patient registration representative at a clinic in Portland, Harris saw firsthand how registration systems weren’t designed for gender-nonconforming people. Harris felt zero hesitation in helping patients update their photo and gender identity if they presented differently than their assigned sex at birth, but other representatives weren’t as sure.

“I was met with a lot of resistance,” Harris recalls about the initial pushback she received from other care advocates. 

Harris spent significant time explaining the importance of using accurate names and pronouns, and over time, she became a go-to person for questions from other care advocates. With each shift toward greater empathy for transgender and nonbinary patients, Harris knew she was positively impacting the clinic’s ability to provide inclusive care.

“But I didn’t have a degree at the time,” she says, “so they wouldn’t promote me.”

Harris knew going back to school would be challenging — she worked full-time and shared caretaking responsibilities for her father. She needed a degree program with the training and accreditation she sought, but at a distance and on a flexible schedule.  

This led her to Oregon State Ecampus, where she enrolled in the women, gender and sexuality studies online bachelor’s degree program in 2020.

“You know, it was scary,” Harris says about going back to school in her 50s. “I definitely won’t say that it wasn’t.”

But with Ecampus, Harris knew she was on the right track. 

“It just encompassed everything I needed. I could balance everything,” she says.

As her courses progressed, Harris found that her age was often an asset. In online discussions, she could share a much-appreciated perspective and personal history that helped bring past eras to life for a younger generation.

Sharing personal stories wasn’t always easy, but Harris received many messages of support and gratitude from her Oregon State classmates and professors. She also stressed how much she learned from younger students and other perspectives in her online classes — opening her mind to new ideas and ways of thinking.

“A lot of the classes in women, gender, and sexuality studies talk about intersectionality. How can I learn from you — about your perspective, your life, your culture and your values?” Harris explains. “And then taking my life and my values into account — how can we meet at that intersection? And recognize that we’re all here to do the same things. We’re all here to improve our lives.”

Harris definitely worked hard to improve her own. 

While helping to care for her father and balancing a full course load, she also took a position as a student ambassador for Ecampus to help other online students navigate the admissions process and the challenges of learning online.

“I wasn’t a computer person at all when I first started this three years ago, so I felt like I was able to say — if I can do this, pretty much anybody can do this,” Harris says.

But the main thing she always tried to impress upon online students who reached out to her as an ambassador?

“You’re not alone.” 

Whether it’s connecting with student ambassadors and success coaches or seeking out clubs and other activities — there are many opportunities to make connections.

Harris is now an Oregon State graduate, and whether she works with students or in a health care setting again — her time at Oregon State University has solidified for her that her career will be in support and advocacy.

“In a way,” Harris says, “I think I’m lucky. I’m happy that I waited until I was in my 50s to finally finish my degree. Because now I know what I wanna be when I grow up.”


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