By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

While Central Oregon Community College is known for its large number of nontraditional students, it doesn’t get much more nontraditional than this: Mika Ray, 25, of Madras, is graduating this week — and so is her 69-year-old grandmother, Leslie Matson.

After four years of hard work, Ray and Matson are both graduating with an associate degree, Matson in criminal justice and Ray in human services.

While the two came to community college at different times in their lives, they had the support of the same family.

Matson, who left Culver High School her junior year in 1966, later earned a GED. As a teen, she hadn’t considered college. “I hadn’t really thought about it when I was younger,” she said. “I worked in the mills most of my life as a single mom, raising my family, helped raise my grandkids. And then, I retired, and the kids were able to go out on their own.”

Matson worked for various wood mills in Central Oregon for about 30 years until 2009. By 2013, her family pushed her to “quit sitting in front of the TV,” she said, chuckling.

Around that same time, Ray’s daughter, Eden, had turned 2. Ray figured her daughter was old enough for her to return to school.

“I think we were both a little bit nervous,” Ray said.

The two agreed starting classes at the Madras Education Center, a COCC satellite campus that opened in 2011, made the adjustment period easier. Not only was the campus smaller and less intimidating than the main campus in Bend, but it was also close to home and more convenient, they said.

While the grandmother and granddaughter only had one or two classes together over their time at COCC, they still used teamwork to complete their degrees.

The two arranged their schedules so Matson could watch Eden when Ray was in class, as Ray’s husband, Trevor, was working and also going to school.

Ray was drawn to human services from the time she enrolled at COCC, she said. And the reason hit close to home.

“We were such an at-risk family,” Ray said. “It was rough, and to be able to come out the other side, I felt like I had a lot to give back.”

Some members of the family have struggled with addiction and poverty, Ray said, but education has helped propel the family forward. In addition to Ray and Matson graduating COCC, Ray’s mother, Shannon Matson, got a license through COCC to be an addiction counselor, Trevor earned his bachelor’s degree last year from Oregon State University-Cascades and will graduate with his master’s degree to become a teacher this spring, and Matson’s other daughter, Ray’s aunt, graduated OSU-Cascades and is a third-grade teacher in Redmond.

For Ray and Matson, their individual paths to graduation day brought their own challenges and triumphs.

Matson, who’d been out of school more than 50 years, had to retrain herself how to study. She also took two computer classes in her first couple of terms to sharpen her skills. At first she was planning to take just general studies, but after enrolling in a criminal justice class, she was hooked.

One of her professors, Kathy McCabe, director of COCC’s criminal justice program, said she’s proud of Matson.

“She just has such a thirst for learning and knowledge that sometimes she puts those youngsters to shame,” McCabe said, adding you can tell Matson “wants to get this right.”

McCabe said unlike some of her younger students, Matson always thought past concepts and applied them to real-life situations.

“She never misses a class — she has a real commitment to her learning,” McCabe said. Although Matson mentioned to her that her granddaughter would be graduating the same term, McCabe didn’t know much else about her personal backstory. McCabe said she’d never question a student on what brought them back to school.

“I think school is there for whenever you’re ready for it,” McCabe said.

Matson will graduate with a 3.8 grade-point average.

Ray said it was a challenge figuring out how to juggle being a young mom, a wife and a student.

“How do you balance it?” Ray said. “I take my studies really seriously, and I try really hard.”

Ray said her husband — between going to school, working and student-teaching — is gone a lot.

“So while encouraging him and helping him to finish up, I definitely run the show for a lot of the day as far as home duties and child care,” Ray said.

One thing that helped immensely, Ray said, was receiving a scholarship from the COCC Foundation that essentially covers all of her tuition. She received a scholarship for the past two years. Before that, she could only afford to go to school part time.

COCC and OSU-Cascades’ graduation ceremonies fall just a half-hour apart Saturday, so Matson and Ray are skipping their own commencement to attend Trevor’s. The good news is, Matson and Ray still have another graduation to look forward to. Both are planning to continue their education to earn their bachelor’s degrees. Matson will enroll in Southern Oregon University online, and Ray at Eastern Oregon University online. With her degree, Ray hopes to do social work with at-risk youth and families. Matson doesn’t plan on coming out of retirement after she earns her bachelor’s degree.

They also will have a couple of keepsakes from commencement. Ray bought them graduation caps and added “Nevertheless, she persisted” to the tops of each, and Matson has something extra from her criminal justice program. McCabe fashions criminal justice graduation sashes for her students out of crime-scene tape.

The day after graduation, the family will likely continue a tradition they picked up during their busy time in school: Sunday dinners. And this summer, while Ray takes a pause from school, Matson will enroll in a couple more online classes through COCC.

“My grandma never takes a break,” Ray said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,