A model student

KU teaching assistant sped through undergrad years

She walks with a subtle confidence, and, at a glance, it might be hard for Kansas University students to believe the woman standing at the classroom’s fore has two undergraduate degrees, is studying for her master’s and is about to show them why Western civilization is one of the most dreaded courses at the university. Why? Because she just turned 20.

Shannon Portillo graduated from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in 2001 in three years. She decided to do the same at Kansas University, and again in three years she graduated with degrees in political science and international studies in May.

Portillo has studied at Cambridge University. She’s a teaching assistant in KU’s Western civilization department and program coordinator for the Emily Taylor Resource Center for Women. This month she helped bring to KU The September Project, which invites communities throughout the country to talk about citizenship, patriotism and community involvement in a post 9-11 world.

And between all the long days and longer nights, Portillo masters a balancing act in which she works, teaches, takes classes and organizes community events.

“It’s all about the balance and it’s tough to keep sometimes. There are times when I go home at night wondering ‘What did I get myself into? I have so much on my plate.’ But then more often, I’m really excited to be doing what I’m doing.”

Q: What was the hardest part of graduating from KU in three years?

A: It was actually choosing a major. I switched majors three times. I came in wanting to be a psychology major, then went to journalism and then finally decided on political science and added the international studies co-major last year.

Q: Is it awkward teaching students who are two, three, four and five years older than you?

A: A lot of my students don’t know how old I am. But I haven’t had a problem with it. I think they know that I understand the material and that I’ve been through what they are doing. But how well I carry myself in the classroom and knowing the information makes it easy, too. People who are older than I am have been very supportive, so I haven’t run into anyone saying ‘you shouldn’t be here’ or anything like that.

Shannon Portillo, 20, a Kansas University graduate student, teaches a Western civilization class. Portillo has already graduated from KU with undergraduate degrees in political science and international studies.

Q: Is school still fun for you?

A: I love school. That’s why I’m still here. I kind of have no idea what I’m going to do when I do get through it, so yeah, school is still really fun. Part of what helped me to graduate from undergraduate in three years was constantly taking classes.

Q: Has your busy schedule ever left you wondering if you might be growing up too fast?

A: I really don’t feel like I’ve missed out just because I’ve been sure to pack my time pretty full, so there’s nothing I look back on and regret. I relished my indecisive times because it gave me a broader base in my education. If there were anything that I would go back and do different, it would be to pick up another 10 majors just because I was interested in so much.

Q: You’ve done so much, what are a couple things that you haven’t had the chance to do?

A: I would like to travel more. I have plenty of time in my life to do it, so I don’t know that’s it’s something I wish I would have done, but I’m definitely interested in traveling more. My focus for my international studies major was Western Europe, so I’d love to explore it and just hang out for a bit.

Birthday: Sept. 6, 1984Hometown: Lee’s Summit, Mo.Family: Jerry Portillo, father; Josephina Portillo, mother; Julian Portillo, brother.Education: 2001 Shawnee Mission Northwest High School graduate; bachelor’s degree in political science, Kansas University, 2004; bachelor’s degree in international studies, KU, 2004; pursuing master’s degree in American studies, KU.Favorite book: “The Twenty-Something American Dream: A Cross-country Quest for a Generation” by Michael Lee CohenFavorite Lawrence place: Milton’s Cafe

Q: From where does that sense of initiative come?

A: That’s very much from my parents. My mom said, “You’re going to a big university, and you’re going to have to be the one to make the move.”

Q: Do your friends ever give you a hard time for being such a model student?

A: Oh yeah, quite a bit, actually. My roommate is taking Western civ. right now, and she is older than I am. I do get a lot of teasing, but it’s all in good fun.

Shannon Portillo had just turned 2 years old when this picture was taken in September 1986.

Q: In a perfect world, how would the rest of Shannon Portillo’s life unfold?

A: I would get my Ph.D., maybe even get a J.D., and work to increase civic engagement and participation, especially of my generation and especially the Latino community that is being fought over politically right now.

Q: Finish this sentence: “The most important thing in the world to me is …”

A: My family and friends, but most importantly family. My family is really close; they are ridiculously supportive of me. My parents moved to Lawrence in my last year of undergrad. It’s really nice having them close again. They keep me pretty grounded. They’ve never really treated me like a child as far as keeping me out of conversations. They’ve always encouraged me to get involved.