On Saturday, 551 graduates participated at WSU Vancouver’s commencement at Sleep Country Amphitheater in Ridgefield.
RIDGEFIELD — Four years ago, Kendall Lushenko was set to attend Western Washington University in Bellingham. She'd been assigned to a dormitory, had a roommate and paid a $300 non-refundable deposit.
But she couldn't bear the thought of leaving her boyfriend, Zach Nielsen, whom she'd been dating since they were sophomores at Battle Ground High School. Nielsen was going to Clark College, and neither of them wanted a long-distance relationship. Lushenko decided to go to Washington State University Vancouver. Nielsen proposed to her that fall, and the following spring she became Kendall Nielsen.
On Saturday, the Nielsens, both 22, were among 551 graduates who participated at WSU Vancouver's commencement at Sleep Country Amphitheater in Ridgefield.
Nielsen said friends — and strangers — told her 19 was too young to get married. Her brain wasn't fully developed, she was told. Her college years were supposed to be fun.
But juggling work, household chores, classes and homework turned out easier with Zach by her side, she said.
"I have no regrets," she said.
In all, 915 students graduated from the school's six academic programs: College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, College of Education, College of Engineering and Architecture and College of Nursing.
Chancellor Mel Netzhammer noted in his opening remarks that Saturday marked a milestone in the university's history.
"Exactly 25 years ago today, May 10, 1989, the Washington State Legislature formally established WSU Vancouver as one of four campuses that make up the Washington State University system," Netzhammer said. "Beginning today and throughout the next academic year, we will celebrate this anniversary with our community, faculty, staff, alumni and students."
At the first commencement in 1990, 38 new graduates received their degrees, said Brenda Alling, WSU Vancouver spokeswoman.
In fall 2006, WSU Vancouver expanded its student body to include freshman and sophomores. In the past 25 years, the school has graduated more than 10,000 students, Alling said.
Saturday's commencement speaker was Shavenor Winters, president of the Associated Students of WSU Vancouver.
She said when she became a Cougar, she never thought she'd be a featured speaker at graduation. She thought she'd walk quietly across the stage to receive her diploma, as shy as she was when she was in high school.
"I've grown into a leader I never thought I would be," said Winters, who was a peer mentor in the Office of Student Diversity, director of the Student Activities Board and an intern on the Diversity Council. She also worked at a movie theater, all while accumulating enough credits to earn a degree in public affairs with minors in business administration, Spanish and sociology.
"Overcoming challenges to get to today is something we all share," Winters said, telling stories of fellow graduates. She spoke of an immigrant who worked three jobs while taking classes, determined to show his younger brothers that a college degree was possible. She also described a veteran who served two tours in Iraq, whose goal in earning a degree was not a "fancy job" but rather to "empower people with knowledge."
Some graduates are worried about the future, including the uncertainty of the job market, she said.
"I'm not here to say there will not be challenges," Winters said. "I'm here to say to those challenges, 'Bring it on!'?"
For the Nielsens, the future includes a trip north on Interstate 5, nearly the same trip Kendall wasn't ready to take four years ago.
After she decided to attend WSU Vancouver and they decided to get married, the couple bought a mobile home in Brush Prairie.
Her husband, who transferred to WSU Vancouver after two years at Clark, worked at the Battle Ground Safeway throughout school, although he had to cut back his hours after starting at WSU Vancouver. She worked too, at a daycare center and then as a barista at a Starbucks inside the Battle Ground Safeway.
Working has allowed them to cover nearly all of their tuition, she said.
Zach Nielsen received his Bachelor of Arts degree in public affairs with an emphasis on criminal justice and a minor in sociology. He'll start July 2 as an officer with the city of Mount Vernon's police department. Nielsen received her Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education with endorsements in English as a second language and middle math. She graduated magna cum laude, has received her residency teaching certificate and applied for teaching jobs in Mount Vernon, which is about 30 miles south of Bellingham. Their student loans will be paid off by the end of July, and the couple will be shopping for a home.
Pleased with the way college turned out, she says they are ready to move on.
"I feel so prepared to start the next chapter in my life," she said.