Jason McPherson had just started at Columbia Basin College in the summer term of 2013 and was already wondering if he’d bit off more than he could chew.
It had been a long time since McPherson, then 26, had been in a classroom, and he was taking math and other prerequisite courses in a bid to become a machinist.
Summer classes meet more frequently and cover material more quickly. Being homeless didn’t make it any easier to keep up with his classwork.
“I’m literally outside in a tent, no electricity, no internet,” he told the Herald. “It was challenging.”
Such adversity had sidetracked him numerous times before. He was kicked out of school, landed in the juvenile justice system and served time in prison.
But this time was different, he said. He needed to get his priorities straight.
And while he’s not at the top of his class, he’ll walk with his fellow CBC graduates on June 19 before heading off to a new job.
“The story is you don’t give up on kids,” said Ernie Chapin, a youth mentor and former teacher who worked with McPherson in the past.
McPherson was born in the Tri-Cities but moved to Yakima with his mother not long after. He struggled in school early on, diagnosed as bipolar and with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD and labeled as a “problem child,” he said.
Those issues persisted after returning to the Tri-Cities in his early teens.
“I got expelled the fourth day,” McPherson said of his short stint at one alternative school.
He soon began getting into trouble with law enforcement and was charged with burglary, malicious mischief and probation violations. His relationship with his mother worsened.
He was placed in the foster care system and earned his GED during that time but was still getting arrested, spending more time lodged in juvenile detention than at his foster home.
“He had a behavior and attitude that just went sideways with teachers,” Chapin recalled of his first meetings with McPherson in juvenile detention.
He knew McPherson was smart and capable, Chapin added, but faced a lot of challenges at home.
“That’s not something you can coach,” Chapin said.
McPherson moved to Texas after turning 18 to be close to a high school sweetheart, but became addicted to crack cocaine there and was charged with driving under the influence and assault.
After working through those issues he returned to Washington state to try and rebuild his relationship with his mother, but ended up in a fight with her boyfriend, leaving him without a home. His legal troubles continued and he was sentenced to a year in prison for violating a no-contact order with a female acquaintance.
While serving his sentence at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, he reached out to Chapin with a phone call.
“I told him, ‘when you get out we’ll make a plan together,’” Chapin recalled.
He also reminded McPherson of the advice he’d given him years before: you have to set your priorities if you’re to get anywhere.
McPherson was released in 2009 but it took a few more years — and stints in Las Vegas, Wyoming and Seattle — before he decided to go back to school. He had returned to the Tri-Cities and enrolled in CBC’s manufacturing technology program.
He stuck with it. Despite living in a tent and not being able to do computer work outside of class, he did well in his first term of classes. The next few terms were more difficult as he eked out barely passing scores in some classes, but he resisted the temptation to fall into old habits.
His relationship with his mother improved and he’s currently living at her home.
When old friends would ask him to hang out rather than do his classwork, he remained strong.
“I’d say, ‘no man, I got to do this,’” McPherson said.
Ken Blocher, then an adjunct instructor, had McPherson for one of his courses, specifically one where students have to machine, assemble and operate an engine to pass.
It was a difficult course at times, for McPherson, as he had to remake several parts to ensure the engine worked properly. But Blocher said his student’s greatest asset was his determination and he saw it on display each day in the machine shop.
“He was there every day and he was trying,” Blocher said. “He didn’t have a lot to work with but he still did it.”
McPherson is destined for Kirkland, Wash., after graduation, where he’ll set up and approve machining programs for Jemco Components and Fabrication. It feels like he finally has a handle on his life, he said.
“It’s not about what you’ve done, it’s what you’re doing,” he said. “I can’t change my past, but I’m doing what I can.”
For those who helped him on his journey, they’re just glad they got to see the transformation.
“He’s got a ton of things to work on,” Chapin said. “But he’s not beat down anymore. He has the confidence to go do stuff.”