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BMCC grad overcomes health challenges, addiction to finish college

Kathy Aney

East Oregonian

Published on June 15, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on June 15, 2017 9:53PM

BMCC graduate Christopher Smith first bumps fellow classmate Sydney Saxton-Siaki before a commencement ceremony on Thursday at the Pendleton Convention Center.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

BMCC graduate Christopher Smith first bumps fellow classmate Sydney Saxton-Siaki before a commencement ceremony on Thursday at the Pendleton Convention Center.

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BMCC graduate Samantha Ball wears the phrase “Follow Your Heart” on top of her mortar board during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

BMCC graduate Samantha Ball wears the phrase “Follow Your Heart” on top of her mortar board during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

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Elainna Howland of Pilot Rock holds a cutout of her daughter, BMCC graduate Megan Matthews, during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Elainna Howland of Pilot Rock holds a cutout of her daughter, BMCC graduate Megan Matthews, during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

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Charles Wood performs a native song called the “Honor Song” during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Charles Wood performs a native song called the “Honor Song” during the commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

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BMCC graduate James Richter waves to the crowd in the  grand stands before the start of a commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

BMCC graduate James Richter waves to the crowd in the grand stands before the start of a commencement ceremony on Thursday in Pendleton.

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Christopher Smith looked out at a sea of fellow graduates, family and friends and smiled a nervous smile.

Smith, a speaker at the Blue Mountain Community College commencement ceremony on Thursday night at the Pendleton Convention Center, had surmounted some daunting barriers on the way to this podium.

Now 38, he started life with multiple health challenges, including severe allergies, brittle bone syndrome and an autoimmune disease that ate away the enamel on his teeth, eventually requiring all of them to be pulled. He weathered dozens of ear and knee surgeries. He endured teasing from other kids.

“I was constantly bullied and told that I was stupid, dumb or even a freak of nature,” Smith said. “There was one thing that I always dreamed about, and that was having the opportunity to go to college and to do something more with my life. I used to fantasize about being one of the few people with the privilege to say something inspirational at graduation.”

That moment had come.

The Seaside native described how he struggled with dependence on prescription drugs that progressed to heroin addiction.

“Unfortunately, growing up there was nothing positive for me to look forward to,” Smith said. “My mind was stuck focusing on all the negative things that I had gone through and I could never hold onto anything positive long enough to make a change. Eventually, I just needed an outlet to stop thinking.”

He completed a drug treatment program and worked a steady job at Keystone RV. Eventually, his mind drifted to his dream of college and he finally enrolled at BMCC in 2013.

A setback came a year ago, when a seizure forced Smith’s body into a backbend so severe that it fractured his back in 10 places. He spent a month in a care facility, learning how to walk again. He entertained thoughts of giving up his college plans.

“For the first time since I started this new positive chapter in my life, going to BMCC, I felt like my hopes and dreams were again impossible to achieve,” Smith said. “I struggled in so many ways that my mind had pushed me to the breaking point and I felt like giving up. Then, out of the blue, I started to receive phone calls and visits from the amazing staff here at BMCC.”

He thanked them for “love, kindness, compassion and devotion to my success.”

“I am living proof that it doesn’t matter how old you are, what you grow up believing is real or what obstacles you may encounter along your journey,” Smith said. “Anyone can change the course of their life, anyone can achieve what they set out to accomplish and dreams can save lives.”

Now that he has earned his Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree, his next stop is Oregon State University where he plans to study psychology and sociology. He hopes to continue his studies until he earns his doctorate.

Smith’s class at BMCC includes 393 graduates ranging in age from 17 to 66, a dozen military veterans and 142 who graduated with high honors. Nine graduates earned high school diplomas and Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degrees simultaneously. His fellow “Blue U” grads listened attentively to Smith, their tassels hanging off the right side of their royal blue mortar boards.

The second student speaker of the night, Sarah Bonner, echoed Smith’s assessment of BMCC as a nurturing place. The Montana-raised infielder on the college softball team and officer in Associated Student Government said support is never far away.

“The encouragement and love that our staff have is seen in every building all the way to our amazing President Cam Preus,” Bonner said. “As we walk through these halls no student is unimportant, overlooked or left to fail.”

Bonner will pursue a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance and later a master’s in sports medicine.

Later, as Smith walked across the platform during the conferring of certificates and degrees, he grinned at his cheering fellow grads, received his diploma, shook the hand of BMCC President Camille Preus and lifted his diploma folder high while flashing an unconstrained grin.

Christopher Smith, the first to graduate from college from his family, had done it. Now, on to the next dream.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.









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