News

Just ask Robert
Author: Harry Esteve
Posted: January 27, 2017

Robert Mercer has helped countless students navigate their way to a PSU degree.

It’s 1976. President Gerald Ford is in the White House. Olivia Newton-John serenades the nation on the radio. Mary Tyler Moore smiles on TV. And college dropout Robert Mercer is happily ringing up customers at a small grocery store in Cannon Beach.

“I loved it. I thought I could be there forever,” says Mercer, reflecting on what might have been as he wraps up a nearly 40-year career at Portland State University.

His boss—“My second mom,” he calls her—had other ideas.

“She pulled me aside and said, ‘If you don’t go back to college in the fall, we’re going to fire you.’ Which seemed really mean to me at the time.”

Cannon Beach’s loss turned into Portland State’s gain. Mercer, 61, leaves as one of the University’s longest-serving and most beloved student advisors. He came to PSU in the late ’70s and worked in various jobs as he earned a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in English. In 1992, he was hired as an advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean’s office and for the next two and a half decades has helped countless students navigate their way to a PSU degree.

One of the students he counseled was Cynthia Gomez, a fellow dropout who made a crucial decision to return to school in the late 1990s. Gomez had been working her way up at the Bagdad Theater & Pub in southeast Portland, but realized she wanted to do more with her life.

She chose PSU, and sat down with Mercer to discuss what courses she should take. He encouraged her to enroll in a University Studies course taught by one of the few Hispanic professors on campus.

“I had never had a Latina professor my whole life,” Gomez says. “It blew my mind.”

The class rekindled her passion for learning and led to projects working with Latino youth in the community. After getting her master’s in education, she stayed on at PSU as a University Studies instructor. Two years ago she was hired as director of PSU’s Cultural Resource Center.

Gomez credits much of her success to Mercer’s early guidance.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” she says about their counseling sessions. “It completely changed my life.”

Success with students comes from Mercer’s deep knowledge of PSU and from a personality that puts students at ease, says close friend Larry Bowlden, a Portland State philosophy professor.

“He just has a gentle presence” that encourages students to open up, Bowlden says. “Everyone trusts him.”

When Mercer began advising students, he was one of two dedicated counselors in the dean’s office. Since then, concern over stubbornly low graduation rates has thrust advising into a much higher profile, and there are now 18 full-time adviser positions in liberal arts and sciences.

Growth in advising represents an acknowledgment of broader changes in higher education, he says. Students, especially at PSU, come from all backgrounds and phases of life. Most hold at least one job; many have families or children to support.

“Students’ lives are so complicated now,” says Mercer, who holds the title of assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I know what a difference it makes to have a human-to-human experience in a big school where you can get lost. Someone who cares about you, who knows your strengths and weaknesses.”

He recounts the story of a student who came for advising for the first time just two terms before graduation. He hadn’t had a positive experience with the system at PSU and assumed that advising would be no different.

“He crossed his arms and stared at me,” Mercer recalls. “He said, ‘You’re going to tell me I’ve screwed up my classes and I’m not going to graduate.’ I said, ‘That’s usually not my goal.’”

Together they worked out a way for the student to graduate as planned. A continuing friendship grew from that meeting. The student completed his bachelor’s degree, then a graduate degree in sociology. He is now a highly respected instructor at Clackamas Community College and works tirelessly for student success.

Mercer’s takeaway: “Just keep at it.”

Personally, Mercer and his husband, Jim Heuer, understand what perseverance can accomplish. They were among the first in line when Multnomah County initially sought to offer marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004. Those licenses were later rejected, but the two were married again in 2014 after a federal judge ruled Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional. His PSU colleagues threw them a reception.

“You couldn’t ask for a more supportive community,” he says about Portland State.

One of Mercer’s most important legacies at PSU is the Last Mile program. Working with departments across campus, he identified students who had applied for graduation but for various reasons had dropped out before completing their final requirements. He contacted the students and brought them back into the fold by giving them the support and resources they needed to earn their diploma. To date, the Last Mile program has helped more than 900 students earn their degree.

The positive momentum of the Last Mile program inspired colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Science to create the student Last Mile Award, which they hope to name in Mercer’s honor once $10,000 or more is raised. Gifts can be made at psuf.org/lastmile.

Like the Last Mile students, Mercer says he has benefited greatly over the years from the encouragement of others, including the Cannon Beach store owner. It’s not lost on him that he made a career of returning the favor.

“There are a million skills that I don’t have,” he says. “But I think I am easy to talk to. 

Harry Esteve is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Caption: Beloved advisor Robert Mercer talks with English undergrad Brian O’Donnell about continuing his education in a master’s program at PSU. Photo by NashCO photography.