When Kiana Walker started working with patients as a dental hygiene student, there was one question she had to stop herself from asking.
“At the beginning, you keep asking your patient ‘Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK?’ ” said Walker, 22. “Most people don’t like going to the dentist already. We know that. You’re just trying to be gentle and not hurt anyone.”
Finally, a patient told Walker that he would let her know if he was in pain.
“It was super nerve-wracking,” Walker said. “Most patients understood we were students and still learning. They were excited to be a part of our learning process.”
On Thursday, Walker was one of approximately 720 students decked out in a royal blue cap and gown walking in Clark College’s 80th commencement ceremony at Sunlight Supply Amphitheater. There were 346 Running Start graduates, a record for the school, which has the largest Running Start program in the state.
Community College Presidents’ Award: Holly Varner.
Exceptional Faculty Awards
• Joseph Cavalli, history.
• Kathleen Chatfield, business technology.
• Heather McAfee, geography.
• Doug Mrazek, French.
Walker was one of 23 graduates in the dental hygiene program, the first bachelor’s degree program offered by the college. The college is in talks to add a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in applied management next year.
The bachelor’s program kept Walker busy. The Prairie High School grad worked at McGrath’s Fish House while getting her associate’s at Clark, working about 30 hours a week. She thought she could keep it up while trying for her bachelor’s, but that didn’t work out.
The first part of the program is all in the classroom, Walker said, but eventually students had to spend two days a week in a clinic doing cleanings and another day a week in a clinic doing fillings. Eventually, she had to give up her job.
“I worked on the weekends for the first quarter and a half,” she said. “I was too burnt out. I didn’t have any time to take a break and relax a bit.”
It worked out for Walker, as she earned a 4.0 GPA and was inducted into the dental hygiene national honors society, Sigma Phi Alpha.
While attending college, Walker lived home with her parents, grandmother and 2-year-old niece, Laylah Walker. She take care of Laylah, a medically fragile baby due to a congenital heart defect. For her first year and a half, the girl was not allowed to go out in public so she didn’t get sick, meaning someone had to be home with her at all times. While it added some stress to Walker’s life — she remembers being a mess in class the day after one of Laylah’s heart surgeries — she loved having her niece around.
“I was so busy all the time,” Walker said. “The last two years, I’ve basically had no social life because all my time has been school, homework and helping with her. At the same time, I really enjoy her being here. There were times when my stress relief would be to go play with her. Kids are funny and they laugh at everything.”
Walker said she especially likes story time, specifically a book called “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” in which animals from a zoo visit the zookeeper while he’s home sick.
Next up for Walker is a move to the Seattle area with a close friend. Since she didn’t leave Vancouver for college, Walker said, she wants to go out on her own and gain “a little bit of life experience outside of Vancouver.” She plans on working for a temp agency as a dental hygienist.
Walker said part of the reason she went to Clark was to stay close to family, but also because she wasn’t positive what career she wanted to pursue.
“I thought for sure in high school I was going to be in psychology or criminal justice,” she said. “I’m way on the other side of the spectrum of that. I’m fortunate I went to Clark first and was thinking about what I wanted to do.”
This year’s commencement speaker, Jessica Lynch, told students she wanted to be a teacher but instead joined the Army after school, leading her down an unexpected path. Lynch, an Army private first class, was a prisoner of war after being captured by Iraqi forces after her unit was ambushed. She talked to the graduates about how she persevered and kept striving to see another day while under Iraqi capture for nine days back in 2003. She told students life is too valuable to be wasted worrying about small things.
“Each of us has some type of obstacle, some type of struggle that wants to hold us down,” Lynch said. “Don’t let it.”