BHCC President Pam Eddinger Interviews Congresswoman Val Hoyle
Part of an occasional series of conversations with local and national leaders about issues and trends in community college education.
-U.S. Representative Val Hoyle
United States Representative Val Hoyle is the first BHCC alum to serve in the United States Congress, where the Oregon Democrat represents the state’s Fourth Congressional District, along the southwest coast.
Hoyle’s path to electoral politics was unusual: growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire, she volunteered for political campaigns and helped her father, a firefighter union leader, in his organizing work. But following her time at BHCC and earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Emmanuel College in Boston, Hoyle left for the Midwest and later Oregon, where she worked in international sales for bicycle manufacturing companies Trek and Burley Design. Hoyle became involved in Oregon politics when she joined Stand for Children, an education advocacy group, to support her children’s schools.
After her election to the Oregon legislature in 2010, Hoyle’s political career progressed quickly. Elected assistant Democratic caucus leader in 2011, Hoyle also served as co-chair of the Oregon House’s Committee on Higher Education and the Committee on Business and Labor. In 2012, she was elected Majority Leader of the Oregon House. In 2018, Hoyle was elected Oregon’s Labor Commissioner, one of only a few similar statewide elected offices in the country. She was elected to the U.S. House in 2022 and sits on the House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure and Natural Resources; Hoyle is also a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the House Equality Caucus, and the Democratic Women’s Caucus.
Hoyle reconnected with BHCC over the winter of 2022, after her election to Congress, and visited the Charlestown Campus at the invitation of Board Chair Bill Walczak and President Pam Eddinger and met with members of the Student Government Association (where she had served as a student).
President Eddinger talked with Hoyle by phone in the spring of 2023. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Pam Eddinger (PE): You are the first BHCC alum to be elected to the United States Congress. Did you always want to run for office and did any part of your BHCC experience help to awaken or reinforce that interest?
Val Hoyle (VH): I really didn’t think that people like me, from my background, were elected to Congress. My dad was president of the firefighter's union, I volunteered on campaigns and helped him when I was young, but I thought of myself as someone who would help people get elected to office.
When I was at Bunker Hill, that started to change. I was elected to student government and I worked with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) on expanding benefits to students and on environmental justice issues. At that point, I knew how to organize, and I started out wanting to get more involved and work on those issues.
I didn’t see myself as a scholar, and because I’m dyslexic, I struggled in school, with math especially. I had a teacher in high school recommend that I go to Bunker Hill, which had a program for first-generation college students like me. Because of that program, I learned how to study and how to be comfortable in a higher education environment.
PE: Many BHCC students are balancing work with school and other responsibilities—what was your experience like as a student and how did it shape your path where you are today?
VH: Most students were like me—they had full-time jobs while they were going to school, and they were the first in their families to go to college. That made Bunker Hill a very comfortable place to be. As chair of student government, I learned about Robert's Rules of Order and how to run a meeting. Bunker Hill was really foundational to why I’m here in Congress—the fact that it was there to both instill in me the skillset I needed to get my bachelor’s degree and to build up the confidence I needed to be successful. It was just an incredibly welcoming and comfortable place.
I had to work while I was in school at Bunker Hill, and it’s what most of the students around me had to do. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a job as well as studying. That’s true for my entire academic career. I was a Pell Grant- eligible student, but I was successful at Bunker Hill because I was surrounded by others who were like myself and didn’t have parents who were paying for college.
When I was in the Oregon Legislature and as Labor Commissioner, I advocated for expanding apprenticeships and certifications, for stronger funding for community colleges, and to fund outcomes. I think we need to be more creative in how we train our workforce as opposed to saying get a bachelor's degree or you’re not that smart, and asking how we fund these outcomes so that students don't have mountains of debt. Community colleges are at the core of that work because of my experience at Bunker Hill.
PE: After college, your career didn’t take you immediately into politics or public policy—you worked for a large company and moved to the Midwest and then to Oregon. One of the things we talk with students about a great deal is conceiving of and planning a career path and incorporating all their many strengths into that planning. How were you thinking about your career path and were you even then working toward a goal of being in public life?
VH: I always worked in bicycle shops, and I went to the Midwest to work for Trek Bicycles. I had wanted to work in international trade; in fact, my degree from Emmanuel was in political science with a concentration in international studies. At Trek, I worked in manufacturing, distribution, and international sales. Then I went to Oregon, where I worked for Early Design, which makes bike trailers. But without the foundation I built at Bunker Hill and Emmanuel, I would not have been able to travel around the world, to be able to do something in an industry I love. It opened up a lot of doors.
PE: There are BHCC students today who may be in a similar position to you when you were a student—planning their career and envisioning a time when they can contribute to the common good. What advice would you give BHCC students
VH: Don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t belong in rooms where decisions are made—because of your identity, your gender, because of your background. There needs to be more people like us, like Bunker Hill students, in those rooms, and to make it to the C-suites, to make it to the legislatures, to make it to Congress. It’s not necessarily comfortable. I had imposter syndrome for the longest time. I thought, I didn’t come from the same background, I didn’t go to the same schools. But I think I’ve been able to do some profound and valuable things because I had a different experience.
Bunker Hill was the foundation that allowed me to move forward because I did not have the confidence in my ability to be a student, to be a scholar, to know how to interact in a room where people are making decisions. That’s why student government is so valuable. People in power will always make you feel like you don’t belong if you’re upsetting the apple cart. Power does not concede power easily. That’s why it is important to have working- class people, including communities of color and people of different lived experiences, in those rooms.
If there are students who want to pursue a career in government, it is important to me to be a resource to them. When you get to a place where you have power and responsibility, and a lot of people helped me get here, I want to make sure that I’m helping the next generation. I’m very committed to the success of community college students.
PE: What role do you see community colleges playing in the higher education and workforce development ecosystems more broadly?
VH: I think that there’s a mismatch happening. There are people looking for good family wage jobs, jobs that will help them buy a home, rent an apartment, feed their family, and there are well-paying jobs going unfilled. That’s what I worked on in the Oregon Legislature. I think we need to change the way we deliver workforce training, and community colleges are integral to that.
Fifty percent of good-paying jobs need more than a high school diploma and less than a bachelor’s degree. So then, how can we deliver workforce training, connect young people to available jobs, provide instruction and paid on-the-job training—how can we be more creative and fund this new direction in how we do education? The apprenticeship model is a big part of it—one that is not exclusively limited to the trades but across different professions and industries. Apprenticeships and certifications fill the jobs that are there, they don’t leave students with mountains of debt, and employers have the employees they need. That's what funding outcomes are all about, and it requires the kind of creative work that community colleges are already doing. We need a transformational change in higher education, and community colleges are right there at the base of it.