Where We Live: 75 years of Portland State University

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland’s largest urban university turns 75 this year.

Portland State University was founded to give soldiers returning from World War II a place to get a higher education. Today, it’s a critical part of Portland’s present and future.

The founding motto of PSU is “Let Knowledge Serve the City” and it’s as relevant today as it was 75 years ago.

“Portland State needed Portland and Portland needed Portland State,” said Ed Washington.

Washington graduated from PSU and is now on the university’s staff. His family lived in the lost city of Vanport where Portland International Raceway is now located. It was a city built for Kaiser shipyard builders and where PSU began in 1946.

“It’s as much a part of me as I guess anything,” Washington said.

It was called the Vanport Extension Center. The two-year college gave World War II veterans with the GI Bill a place to get a college degree.

“And we began to serve the populations in our own communities that couldn’t go to other colleges that were farther away,” said PSU President Stephen Percy.

Just two years later, the devastating Memorial Day Flood of 1948 wiped out Vanport and the Vanport Extension Center. In Percy’s words, “It was a very sad time for our community.”

Portland State bounced around after the flood — to Portland’s Grant High School, then to the Oregon Shipbuilding building in North Portland, then to the old Lincoln High School downtown in 1952.

Lincoln Hall is the place from where Portland State grew, becoming a 57-acre campus with 24,000 students.

“There’s a lot of people that would not have a college degree in this city, in this city, had it not been for Portland State,” Washington said.

The pandemic has moved PSU mostly to online instruction; however, about 600 international students are still living on campus. As a research university, PSU is a leader in disciplines including public policy, urban planning and architecture. But it’s also positioned to help find solutions from homelessness to the economy.

“And we want to be part of helping downtown come back,” Washington said.

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