Yashica Island exudes energy with a brisk walk, sporting a big smile, a generous laugh, and a spring in her step. Her home at Pacific University is the Tutoring and Learning Center in Scott Hall, which she directs, along with the Pacific Leadership Academy.
Hired in September 2012, Island came to Pacific with a broad science background, experience in teaching high school and working with Upward Bound at Portland State University, and a desire to help others. Her experiences in following a convoluted path in her own education, she said, have guided her to focus on helping others, particularly students of varied ethnic backgrounds.
Born in Arkansas, Island moved with her mother to Portland as a baby. She graduated in a health professions curricula from Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, known for its emphasis on preparing students in technical and health professions. She went on to Southern Arkansas University.
“I got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in math because I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “The more I started going through my high school years, I realized I really liked forensics.”
However, the reality of that kind of job led Island to decide on a different course.
“I realized my personality does not match a forensics person: to be in a lab all day, by myself, with dead people,” she said with a laugh. “I think it’s cool to figure out how someone died, but I could not see myself being in the lab every day doing that.
“That’s when pharmacy popped in my head,” she added. “That’s four years; I still could be a doctor and everything is great.’”
Island graduated from Southern Arkansas University and was accepted to the pharmacy program at Oregon State University, where things actually weren’t so great for her, she said.
“Somebody should have told me that you can’t go into a professional program without any passion for the program,” she said, laughing. “I missed that part.”
“After being in Arkansas for those four years, it was hard coming back to Oregon, because I had gotten used to Southern culture,” she said. “There were only three African-American students in the whole pharmacy program in my cohort … you never found anyone that was like you.
“It was really hard field for me to be in without having any mentors.”
Island stayed with the program until the third year.
“I knew after the first semester I didn’t want to do it, but you’ve got to realize that I’m not a traditional person to be in that type of situation,” she said. “For me, if I quit pharmacy school, my family quit pharmacy school. It was like the family’s reputation was on the line … everyone was rooting for me to be this big doctor of pharmacy.
“It took that third year of me looking with my books open, staring at the walls. My family was really disappointed … It was the hardest thing I had to do at that time in my life. There was a lot of shame that came that way.”
Island quit pharmacy school, but went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching at OSU, which offered an immersion program to recruit for teachers of color. She then taught a for three years at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, with a variety of assignments, including algebra, biology, integrated science and dance. She also served as an advisor for the yearbook.
She later worked at Portland State University with Upward Bound, eventually becoming the supervisor of PSU’s tutoring center.
At Pacific, as director of the Tutor and Learning Center, Island hires and trains student tutors to help other students with a variety of academic subjects, including math, science, writing and foreign languages.
Meanwhile, as director of the Pacific Leadership Academy, she said her job is meant to support and increase retention rates of under-represented students.
“It’s my job to figure out what they need and if we can provide it,” she said.
“One of the biggest groups that’s hard for Pacific to keep is African-American students,” she said.
“I’ve been working with them on trying to make them feel this is an inclusive place. That’s what the academy is really about, helping students bridge that gap between students and the school to really provide the structure and support that the school didn’t think about but really should think about.”
Part of that has helped restart the Black Student Union, once an active group on campus.
Although Island said she has been hired under the umbrella of the College of Arts & Sciences, she added “I pretty much hear the needs of everybody … I’m working with all sorts of people: graduate students, alumni.
“It takes a village. I’m just listening to some of the issues they have going on now.”
Island is the mother of a four-year-old son, Jamear.
“He loves this place,” she said. “He wants to go to college Pacific University. I’m excited about that!”