KENNEWICK — Conan Byman was laid off in 2008 from a Longview paper mill when he and his family decided he would go back to school.
Friday, four years after he lost his job, Byman walked out of the Toyota Center in Kennewick with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Washington State University Tri-Cities.
He already has a full-time job with Ares Corp. in Richland, and he and his wife are now preparing for their fifth child.
"(The mill) was a good paying job and it was scary to be laid off," he said, "But it was a blessing in disguise."
Byman was one of more than 400 graduates receiving degrees from the university, the largest graduating class in the Richland campus' history. Around 2,000 people watched Friday's ceremony.
Graduates, their family and friends, and university officials noted how the graduates have changed during the years and how the university itself has changed. Many mentioned the struggles and challenges they faced to earn their degrees, but also expressed excitement for what lies ahead.
"Graduates, this is your day. Enjoy and celebrate," said Chancellor Vicky Carwein.
The university, which has about 1,500 students, has seen tremendous growth in the past six years, Carwein said. Demographically, many students come from low-income backgrounds and were the first in their family to attend college. Many have their own families, worked part- or full-time jobs as they attended classes, or served in the military before pursuing higher education.
That's what Petra Atilano of Prosser said her friend Teresa Iztas-Reyna did to get her degree in business administration. The two women graduated from Prosser High School in 2000 and Atilano said Iztas-Reyna worked while she went to school, first at Columbia Basin College in Pasco and then at WSU's Richland campus.
"I always knew she could do it but now it's nice to see her getting it done," Atilano said.
Mark Yguerra said his wife, Donna Isabel Acosta Gutierrez, drove to classes twice a week from their Sunnyside home, in addition to taking online courses, to get her degree in management and operations. He said he was proud of her and she was excited to move on with her career.
"He's very excited," Yguerra added, holding up 2-year-old son, Devin.
Speakers at Friday's event said that while the graduates should be proud of their achievement, they should also reflect upon who has helped them along the way and how to give back to their communities.
"Graduation is not only a time of celebration ... but it's also a time for examination and dedication," said Maj. Gen. Timothy J. Lowenberg, Friday's keynote speaker and adjutant general of the Washington Army and Air National Guard.
That's something Roxanne Dodson said her student teacher, Kristina Shelestovskiy, accomplished in earning her bachelor's degree in education.
Dodson, a third-grade teacher at Kiona-Benton City Elementary School, was Shelestovskiy's mentor for the past year. While working with the third-graders was part of the classwork, Shelestovskiy went beyond that, Dodson said.
"She'd come in and volunteer and really got to know the kids," Dodson said. "Now she's full of confidence. She's ready to go."
w Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org