Journey to degree complete for WSU Tri-Cities grads

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 10, 2014 

KENNEWICK -- Motherhood and academia have long gone hand-in-hand for one Kennewick woman.

Robin Henderson, 35, already had an almost 2-year-old daughter and was eight months pregnant when she received her bachelor's degree about a decade ago. On Saturday, the day before Mother's Day, she was awarded a master's degree in environmental science from Washington State University Tri-Cities at Toyota Center.

Her husband, also a WSU Tri-Cities student, and their now five daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 3, watched from the stands.

"I'm able to show (my daughters) what it's like to achieve a degree," Henderson said of her daughters while crediting her husband and sister with helping with her children while she pursued her studies.

More than 200 graduates received their diplomas during commencement festivities as hundreds of their family members and friends looked on and cheered.

University officials and speakers at the event remarked that many of this year's graduates had personal challenges and obligations, such as parenthood and jobs -- they had to balance to earn a degree. As a result, many depended on others -- faculty, family, friends -- to get to graduation day.

"I'm grateful for having a small army of support that never wavered in their faith in me," said valedictorian Amanda Rukavina.

The Richland campus, which has about 1,400 students, has grown steadily since freshmen were first accepted in fall 2007, said Michael Mays, vice chancellor for academic affairs. The 2013-14 academic year was no exception, with five new student-led groups formed on campus and an increasingly diverse student body, he said.

But there are certain traits many students have in common, demonstrated when Mays asked students to stand if they were parents, worked while they were enrolled in classes and if they were the first in their family to attend college.

"You have changed our campus and you have changed yourselves," Mays said.

Rukavina, WSU Tri-Cities' first valedictorian, started pursuing a degree at WSU Pullman more than 20 years ago.

It was the Richland campus's diversity and small size that Rukavina said made her feel at home and pushed her to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology and graduate summa cum laude.

But it also was her knowledge that others in her family had taken nontraditional approaches to their educations, including a grandmother who went back and finished high school while raising five kids.

"It's never too late, and most of you know that," Rukavina said.

Keynote speaker Norman Rice, former mayor of Seattle and now president of The Seattle Foundation, struggled and dropped out of college after he graduated from high school. It was his discovery of his love for the performing arts and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that made him realize the importance of getting a degree.

"Each of us will find that fork in the road and we must choose which way to travel," Rice said.

But the journey doesn't end, said Dirk Leach, a senior vice president with AREVA Federal Services LLC and the 2014 Distinguished Alumnus. When he earned his first degree more than 30 years ago, he used punchcards to program computers, he said, where now he can search for any bit of information with just a few buttons on his smartphone.

"To keep up with our accelerating pace of technological change, to be successful in your career, to continue to contribute, you will need to continue to learn, to grow, to accept the changes that will come, and to adapt to our ever changing world," Leach said.

That's what Paul Armatis, 22, who earned his bachelor's in mechanical engineering, said he plans to do. The intern at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, he said he expects to apply to graduate school in about a year.

Henderson isn't done either. She leaves this summer for a fellowship at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska to study a stream before returning to campus in the fall to start her doctoral degree.

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