Debbie (Kerlinger) O’Dea ’06 was warned not to have too high of hopes about college.
“My sister told me college was not like the movies; it’s not the greatest four years of your life,” O’Dea recalled. “But after I got here, I was like, ‘You were so wrong! This is awesome!”
Today, O’Dea is a financial aid counselor at Southern Oregon University, where she draws on her Pacific University experience as a model.
O’Dea grew up in Medford, Ore., and was hooked on Pacific as soon as she stepped onto campus.
“I parked in front of Marsh and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s so pretty,’” she said. “It’s pretty, it’s close. I applied and was accepted. That was it.”
She fondly remembers studying abroad in Ecuador, watching soccer games from the front of the soccer house, lounging around the beach volleyball pit on sunny days, and stocking up on oranges for food fights at the Spirit Bench.
“We got to make our own pretty harmless, safe fun,” she said.
The personal attention of faculty and staff, however, are what really stand out.
The summer after her freshman year, O’Dea joined the National Guard.
She had always had a romanticized vision of the military, and she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather, who both served their country. The experience, she said, wasn’t exactly what she had imagined — “apparently it’s not all Frank Sinatra” — but it was valuable all the same.
“I really liked that sense of community and comradery,” she said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Her service, however, proved a challenge with school. She was delayed on her return from basic training between her sophomore and junior years, which caused her to miss several weeks at the beginning of the term.
“Eva Krebs was the dean of students at the time, and there were multiple calls between her and my parents, and me when I had phone access. They were ready to drop me, but she got them to let me stay with a modified schedule,” O’Dea said.
At the beginning of her senior year, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and O’Dea’s unit was activated for service in New Orleans.
“Here we go again,” she said.
Again, Pacific worked with O’Dea to allow her to stay in school and move forward with her academic process. Ultimately, she had to take 18 credits in her senior year, but she graduated on time.
“It was a scramble, but Pacific was great. At any other school, I never would have salvaged those semesters,” O’Dea said. “Everybody here was willing to make it happen.”
After graduation, O’Dea spent five years working for the National Guard before looking at grad schools (helpfully funded through her Guard service).
“I was talking to (classmate) Caine Francis, my unofficial life coach: ‘My enlistment’s up, what do I do?’ He said, ‘What was your favorite thing in college?’ I loved being a first-year mentor, orientation leader, pledge caption. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘You love working with students. Go to school for student affairs.’
“I was like, ‘That’s a thing?’”
It is. O’Dea earned a master’s degree in higher education from Canisius College in New York and found her way back to Medford and Southern, where she is a financial aid counselor.
“I loved my time at Pacific. I loved being connected. I’m still connected,” she said, sitting at the 2016 Homecoming celebration, where she had helped plan her 10-year class reunion. “That’s why I went into Student Affairs, and that’s what hopefully I’m doing at Southern: Helping them walk away saying, ‘What an amazing experience.’”