“I’ll be the first to say we’re exhausted,” said Armando “Mando” Antonino, laughing.
Antonino, the president of the school’s associated student body, is one of an estimated 950 students graduating from WSU Vancouver this Saturday. The ceremony will be the school’s first in-person graduation since 2019.
WSU Vancouver’s Class of 2022 is now the third graduating class that’s dealt with the relentless onslaught of curve balls that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown. With the finish line now in sight, Antonino and his fellow graduating class members can not only find time to exhale, but to recognize the many hurdles they’ve navigated.
“Even through that exhaustion, I keep realizing, ‘We did that,’” he said. “‘We really did that.’ And now we can start reflecting on our accomplishments.”
Leading past hurdles
A Longview native and first-generation college student, Antonino said he chose WSU Vancouver because of its proximity and affordability. He was awarded a College Bound scholarship, which paid for his tuition across all four years.
“I was very lucky due to my own personal circumstances,” Antonino said. “I always call it my golden ticket.”
Antonino stepped into presidency in unexpected fashion. Just months after the pandemic struck in March of 2020 when he was serving as vice president, his ticket partner stepped down, which thrust him into the lead role. Seeking someone with shared interest in student advocacy and specifically equity work, Antonino chose Evans Kaame — a recent transfer from Clark College who had served as their student body president — as his vice president.
Kaame moved to Vancouver in 2018 from his home of Lodwar, Kenya. After originally seeking to study engineering, he said he stumbled into political science after internal conversations with himself regarding his purpose for existence drew him toward a field where he could make a difference in his community and beyond.
“It took a few months, assessing and evaluating options,” Kaame said. “When I realized serving people is the reason I’m here and that would be central to my life, political science became a means for fulfilling that role. Understanding the institutions that serve us, and how well they do so.”
A balance of outspoken tenacity and calculated patience, Antonino and Kaame led with the understanding that they’d need to be creative to help provide their fellow students a sense of community and social bond that they said is ultimately the biggest learning experience in college.
Through the use of Slack, Discord and other online networking software, the two managed to coordinate events and point fellow students in the direction of support systems as the pandemic provided issues with financial stability, food insecurity and mental health.
In the 2020-2021 academic year, in which classes were fully remote, the duo prompted students to take advantage of the Cougar Food Pantry and the Student Emergency Fund, among other resources. With classes eventually returning to in-person in fall 2021, and then without masks in spring 2022, Antonino and Kaame said they felt like they were allowed a pleasant ending to an otherwise unpredictable and often disheartening college experience.
“Exhaustion aside, we are excited that the last four years are paying off,” Kaame said.
Navigating both the pandemic and the nationwide racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, he said, provided him with the understanding that he would need to be able to deal with similar, challenging obstacles going forward if he chooses to continue in his path to leadership.
“Just looking at the frustrations that we went through, the downsides, those moments we thought it’s not going to work out, were not going to make it, academically, socially,” Kaame said, “That changed perspective for me, I thought, ‘I have to put more work into this, I have to see how we come out of this together and make things work for our society.’
“It brings a sense of excitement for graduation.”
A group of students and faculty members are planning a demonstration during Saturday’s graduation ceremony to highlight the student debt crisis.
Ellah Allman, a graduating senior, helped to organize the demonstration — students are wearing the words “Biden Cancel Student Debt” on their caps, along with a price tag on their robes that represents how much they’ll owe in loans upon graduating.
“I wanted to bring more attention to the issue, and this is a good way to further the conversation and make the student debt crisis more visible,” Allman said.
“We’re graduating, but this is the price tag, this is what it costs.”
Like Antonino, Allman, a Vancouver native, chose WSU Vancouver because of its proximity and affordability. Even still, she expects to be nearly $15,000 in debt.
“When do you this at 17, 18, 19, you have no real idea what you’re signing on for,” she said.
The demonstration, she said, is an example of how she and other students aim to raise awareness for how individual issues extend beyond campus life and bleed into other aspects of society long past graduation.
Moving to the fall
Chancellor Mel Netzhammer struggles to quantify just how hard the last few years have been on students and faculty alike at WSU Vancouver.
“It’s hard to put into numbers, but we’ve had to learn to be nimble,” he said. “So many obstacles have been thrown at these students, and we really want to recognize that and honor what an incredible achievement this has been for them to get to this point.”
Next year, he hopes to help students get fully re-engaged in the classroom. Though they’ll do so with the understanding that technology and social networks — like the ones Antonino and Kaame helped promote — have transformed campus life, Netzhammer wants to ensure that his students can retain a lively on-campus experience in the years to come.
“Rebuilding that workforce and creating new teams and onboarding to our campus community is going to be a big piece coming back,” Netzhammer said. “But also taking everything that we’ve learned over the last few years and thinking about how we can improve some of those experiences. This has been a significant learning experience for us and we need to take those lessons seriously.”
For the first time in a long time, the students said, they feel they can look ahead. Obstacles still remain — no shortage of them, in fact — but they feel as if the unique experience they’ve endured in the last four years might actually have helped shape them as more hardened, battle-tested individuals going forward.
“It’s been quite the journey, knowing that where I am today and the successes I’m about to achieve through my education do not come easily,” Kaame said. “When things seem unlikely, they will become likely if we persist and stay focused on the goal ahead of us. In other words, hard work requires sacrifices.”