It wasn’t that long ago that Julian Rivas was staring out a tiny window of a solitary confinement cell, his home for more than two years, and looking at a bleak, empty field.
On Saturday afternoon, he stood on a stage and looked out into the sea of black robes worn by his fellow graduating class of Washington State University Vancouver as he accepted the Chancellor’s Award for Student Achievement.
Rivas, 29, joined a record number of 1,014 graduates from the Salmon Creek campus. That number includes 28 doctoral candidates, 110 master’s candidates and 876 bachelor’s candidates.
From a young age, Rivas was in and out of detention centers and later, prison. A lot of people around him were serving life sentences, but he knew he had another shot. And before he lost everyone he loved, he decided he would change. The day he was released from his last stint in prison, he bought a one-way ticket out of California to Longview.
Graduation day, he said, was surreal. His family was in the audience.
“My family is like how did you go from that place to this place in five years?” he said.
Now, with a bachelor’s of arts in social sciences with a concentration in human resources administration, certificate in case management and 3.9 grade point average, he envisions helping other troubled young people navigate their lives.
“Make a change early. Don’t wait so long to change directions,” he said, adding he wish he had decided earlier to break free of gang life.
Commencement speaker Skye Troy, 22, the president of the associated students of Washington State University Vancouver, is also no stranger to overcoming struggles. As she stood on the stage Saturday, she recounted her life, turning to drugs at an early age, later getting arrested for stealing credit cards resulting in a 10-day period in rehab.
In the audience, too, were hundreds of students, each with their own obstacles facing them on their journey to receive their diploma.
Eunice Mbatia, 40, received her bachelor’s of science in nursing on Saturday, while wearing the cultural Maasai headdress worn by many of the women in her native country of Kenya. She will continue her work as a hospice nurse, she said.
“I like to see people die with dignity,” she said.
Good friends Marina Bessarab, 27, and Anna Protsenko, 27, have known each other since elementary school. Both their parents were fleeing religious persecution in Ukraine and they moved to the United States at a young age. Before taking the stage on Saturday, the two women admitted they still often switch to speaking Russian when they want to converse without anyone else understanding, a skill they honed throughout the years.
Kyle Knowlton, 43, was the university’s first graduate with a strategic communication major.
“Top of my class,” Knowlton joked.
But the former musician said school had always been his enemy, the one thing he felt he couldn’t conquer. Saturday changed that.