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The unwavering positivity of Earlene Hickman

Chemeketa’s Lead Mail Clerk Earlene Hickman and her famous smile. Photo by Saul Rodriguez.

Walking the halls of Chemeketa, you’ve likely seen a woman pushing a cart of boxes, offering a smile and a warm, boisterous greeting to anyone who looks her way.

That woman is Earlene Hickman, the Lead Mail Clerk here at Chemeketa. On her route she delivers not only packages, but also a sense of welcoming enthusiasm to everyone she passes.

Hickman attributes her persistently pleasant attitude to her experiences and her faith.

“When I was thirty I had cancer, so I’m a cancer survivor,” she said. “I didn’t die, so God has me here for a reason. I’m gonna get up and give him my best. He saved me, and I’m gonna get up and give him my best everyday until I’m gone.”

Hickman certainly does give her best, and when she starts to feel down or overwhelmed, she has a game plan for how to handle it.

“Well for me when the negative comes, I go and I take a walk, and I talk to my lord,” she said.

“I’m quick at [saying] ‘God I gotta give you that. I can’t do it. I gotta give you that,’” she said. She emphasizes that the key to positivity is not harboring bad feelings.

“It’s like I tell my children, you know my children are in their 20s and 30s, I tell them, ‘When you got something on your mind, you got something on your heart, you got something bothering you, get it off you. Get it off you; it don’t matter,’” she said.

Hickman has been contributing this positive attitude to the Chemeketa community for the past 18 years, but not always as a mail clerk. Like many college employees, she started out as a student here.

“…you know [when] I was going to school, I’d watch people who had jobs here and I thought, ‘God, this is an easy place to work. I wanna work here,’” she said, laughing.

“And as I got to know the people that supported and helped me… I thought, ‘I wanna work here. I wanna be a difference.’ …I did it; you can do it,” she said. “Confidence.”

Before being offered a full-time job for her current position in 2000, Hickman worked at a variety of other jobs at Chemeketa, including positions in the C Store, food court, library, and TRIO. Now, she works at the Chemeketa Center for Business and Industry registering people for non-credit classes in addition to her job as mail clerk.

What lead her to working at Chemeketa was her decision to pursue an education here in the first place, which she attributes to her family.

“I didn’t go to school after I graduated,” Hickman said. “I had a child and I took a job and raised a family and I didn’t go to school, so this was my first college that I came to. And like I said, the support is what made me want to work here. There’s a lot of youngins in my family and I thought if I don’t show them that this is the way to go, you know… and I felt like if I didn’t show my children and the children that I was raising if that’s what has to be done then it wouldn’t get done.”

Hickman moved to Oregon in hopes of providing a better life for her children.

“I lived in Phoenix and it was gang related,” she said. “I just thought, ‘I’m not raising my kids here,’ and I had to get out of there. I’m the black sheep of the family; I don’t do any drugs.”

In addition to three children of her own, she has also raised five foster children and is getting ready to welcome a sixth in July.

“His name is Joshua Daniel. We call him J.D. I got a picture,” she said, pulling out her phone with a wide smile.

“They’re my family,” she said. “I just don’t want to see my family in the [social] services.”

It’s been several years since her last foster child, and at age 53 she finds herself both excited and nervous to take on another. With eight total children under her belt, however, she knows she’ll be okay.

“I keep telling myself that,” she said. “‘You’re a pro at this, Earlene. There’s not a baby in the world that doesn’t love you.’”

Hickman brings the caring, supportive nature she displays at home to work with her as well. Her favorite thing about the college is its abundance of support. She offers words of encouragement to students who need them.

“When they’re all stressing, [saying] ‘I’m just gonna quit’ – What are you gonna quit for? ‘I’m just not doing well, I’m just not. I can’t get an A or nothing.’ I didn’t get A’s,” she said. “I still got a degree.”

Earlene truly believes in the merit of a college level education, even if it’s just for the first two years.

“It shows dedication and that’s what employers are looking for. Just do it… Then nobody ever looks at you says, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ or ‘Well he might care,’ or ‘She might care,’” she said.

“It’s more than worth it. Just the experience to me itself is worth it, I feel,” she said.

Another part of the college experience Hickman stands by is the social aspect.

“People don’t understand this but you gotta socialize yourself,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t socialized. They take a job and they’re in this job and they have no way or means how to socialize. People say I over-socialize.” “‘You talk too much Earlene. You’re always…’ Whatever. I got stuff to say,” she said, laughing.

But Hickman wasn’t always the outspoken person she is now. When she first started out at Chemeketa, she was shy. It wasn’t long, however, before she came out of her shell.

She said, “I had three children, [was] really quiet, and I didn’t hardly ever say much. Lots of discrimination back then. But I still was like, ‘You know, I’m gonna do me. I’m doing me.’ I don’t really care what a lot of people think. I don’t have a lot of enemies. I don’t really care what people think. I’m doing me. Like me or leave me alone.”

Hickman wants students who find themselves struggling to know that they can accomplish anything.

“Stay structured,” she said. “Stay honest. Stay focused. Don’t give up. So what you got an F? ‘How many F’s did I get?’ I’m quick to tell them. I got three or four F’s in my time, you know what I mean? …Pick it up and keep it rolling. Don’t let it bring you down. What is it bringing ya down for? …Nobody here is perfect. We are all striving to make it. Keep it going. Never give up. You will get that degree and move on from there.”