'I want to give back something:' Former college president founds scholarship

photo of sharon mcgavickShe doesn’t remember exactly what she taught, or if she ever knew her first name. But what Sharon McGavick does know is that a part-time instructor in the early days of Linn-Benton Community College asked her a question - and changed her life.

Now, McGavick is creating a scholarship to help give that life-changing opportunity to students who were once just like her.

It was 1968 and McGavick was 29 years old, a single mother trying to support two children. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t have any family nearby.

“I just wanted to get an education. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do,” she said. “I just knew I needed to go to school.”

McGavick heard someone was starting a community college in Albany. She had a quarter-acre plot at her home on River Road in Lebanon, so she researched best-selling crops and figured cucumbers could make her some tuition money. 

They did, but not quite enough, so McGavick sold Avon cosmetics to make up the rest. She then enrolled at LBCC, taking classes in a church because the fledgling community college was using leased and borrowed facilities while working on a building of its own.

One day after class, an instructor, Mrs. Bennett, asked McGavick if she could speak to her after class. She asked her some questions: What are your goals? What do you want to be when you grow up?

Surprised, McGavick wasn’t sure how to answer. Then she thought about her cosmetics sales.

“I said, ‘You know, I really don’t know, exactly. I sell Avon on this rural route in Lebanon, and all these women buy Avon and tell me all their problems,’” McGavick remembers saying. “I think that I would be a pretty good as a counselor, because people seem to open up to me. I think they buy Avon so they can talk to me.”

Mrs. Bennett listened, and then gave McGavick some advice: We’re not far enough along yet here, so go enroll at Oregon State University. Sign up for financial aid.

McGavick did.

She never became a counselor, but eventually she did become Dr. Sharon McGavick, the first (and second) woman to be named president of a technical college in the state of Washington. She served in that role first at Clover Park Technical College, from 1997 to 2006, then at Lake Washington Technical Institute from 2007 to 2010, and again for a year in 2012 as an interim.

How she got there is a long and winding tale, but it all rests on the conversation she had that day with an LBCC instructor who happened to notice her. 

That small push made all the difference. She now wants to help give other LBCC students the same kind of push to help them along their path, through an annual scholarship of $1,000.

"I really want to start a scholarship at Linn-Benton because that's where it all started with me,” McGavick said. "Somebody else saw something in me and made a huge difference in my life. I want to give back something." 

Details for the scholarship are still being worked out, but McGavick said it will be targeted toward single parents like herself: “For someone who needs a boost.” 

Sometimes all it takes is that one boost, McGavick said. Mrs. Bennett gave it to her. So did the dean of education at OSU, who told McGavick she needed to teach before becoming a counselor and gave her a list of subjects from which she picked home economics. 

Burr Fancher gave her another nudge. He was the superintendent of the local Education Service District and taught agriculture at Lebanon High School. 

When he dropped in on a faculty meeting at South Albany High School, where McGavick first went to teach, and recognized his wife’s Avon lady, he, too, asked what she wanted to do with her life. On hearing McGavick say she was now considering teaching at the community college level, he suggested she sign up for a vocational education leadership program at OSU where she’d learn to be a voc ed administrator.

McGavick said she wasn’t sure she was cut out to be an administrator. Fancher said she could. “Anybody who can plant cucumbers and sell Avon can be an administrator,” she remembers him saying. 

The OSU program taught McGavick she could, indeed, be an administrator. That program led to McGavick’s doctorate in vocational education from OSU  in 1984. It helped propel her to become the first woman vocational director of a high school, North Salem, and later to her two college presidencies. 

It was while she was at Lake Washington that McGavick was asked to speak at a national gathering of college planned giving agencies. She spoke about Mrs. Bennett.

“It really makes a difference when one person gives you some encouragement and sees you as someone who has potential,” she said. “I certainly didn’t see it in myself, but she did.” 

One small action, one chance remark, can change a life, McGavick said. It often happens without the speaker even realizing it.

Take the job slip she handed to a North Salem student who came to her vocational education office one day looking for employment. Later, the boy presented her with his diploma. “You’re the reason I got this,” he told her. “You took a job off the board and gave me that job and that changed my life.”

The boy had been struggling in school and had moved out to stay on a friend’s couch, McGavick learned. The job, for a contractor looking for framers, gave him the confidence to follow through with his academic career. 

“In my mind, I did nothing, but I did something for him,” McGavick said. “It was a profound lesson for me.” 

“You just don’t know who you reach, and who you touch.”