While looking for a place to continue her education two years ago, one Basin City woman wasn't sure Washington State University Tri-Cities was the best option.
"I wanted to do design but I wasn't sure this would be the right place for me," said senior Esther Flatau, 23, citing the university's propensity for science-related and technical studies.
But Saturday, she will graduate magna cum laude from WSU Tri-Cities with a bachelor's degree in digital technology and culture and lead her fellow graduates from the College of Arts & Sciences into the Toyota Center at commencement.
Flatau's design portfolio is filled with examples of her photography, including shots she's taken for the WSU Tri-Cities website, but also graphic designs for the university's Career Development Center and other campaigns, work from two internships and preliminary designs for a Columbia River dock project in the works for the Richland campus.
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Her professors and others she's worked within and outside WSU Tri-Cities praised her creativity, work ethic and dedication and said she is an example of how a university typically associated with technical and scientific studies can serve students interested in the humanities.
"Quite simply, she strives to excel in everything that she does," said Doug Gast, associate professor of fine art and director of the digital technology and culture program.
For Flatau, the Richland campus just offered what she needed.
"I saw potential in the program and I found success in it," she said.
To be an artist
Flatau grew up in Basin City, where her family has a small fruit farm covering two acres that produces cherries, peaches, nectarines, apples and pluots. She attended a private Christian school for most of her education before being home-schooled during her senior year of high school, earning her diploma in 2009.
Throughout her life, Flatau was always drawn to art and design, she said. She painted and drew and also pursued design and music theory during her year of home-schooling. It helped that her mother had studied graphic design and taught some art classes at the private school Flatau previously attended.
"I'd always had that idea -- to be an artist," Flatau said.
She attended Columbia Basin College, where she briefly continued studying music before switching to general studies. She graduated with her associate degree in 2011 but took a year off afterward, helping out at Basin City Elementary School where her aunt is the principal.
"I wanted to get a bachelor's degree but didn't know specifically what I wanted to do," Flatau said.
Flatau didn't even know WSU Tri-Cities had a program focused on design until she heard about it through a friend. Even then she was hesitant to apply, wondering if it would truly offer her what she wanted. But WSU Tri-Cities was affordable and would allow her to continue living with her family in Basin City, so she started classes in the fall 2012.
The digital technology and culture program has been at WSU Tri-Cities since 2003 and enrolls about 50 students. It focuses largely on communication skills and strategies, though there is also fine arts instruction and other interdisciplinary work.
While the coursework was tied into the arts, Flatau said she appreciated all the different perspectives the program introduced, from developing writing skills to working with engineers. Her family, always supportive, even showed up in her coursework, becoming the subjects of a video examining the connection between art and creativity.
Flatau also was introduced to social practice art, which depends upon engagement with people. It inspired her to propose a dock for the campus on the Columbia River so that students could better connect with the waterfront, a vital aspect of the region.
"I wanted to have something tangible," she said.
Flatau's professors encouraged her to develop the idea and apply for a grant. She ended up receiving more than $1,000 to do preliminary designs. The university is reviewing the idea and Flatau said administrators are interested.
"Having students like Esther raise the bar for the rest of our students substantially," Gast said. "We are all very proud of having her serve as an example of what our students can accomplish."
Outside the classroom
Flatau didn't just stay busy in the classroom. She was hired as an office assistant for the then-relatively new Career Development Center, which helps students secure internships and jobs. It wasn't long after getting hired, though, that her supervisors saw her potential for design and how it could raise awareness of the center's offerings.
"Her design work was key in creating awareness for (the center)," said LoAnn Ayers, who was the center's director but is now the university's director of strategic partnerships. "It really drives our message."
University officials were so confident in Flatau's work that they gave her the reins on designing some promotional materials for campus initiatives, rather than send them through an in-house marketing office. She also worked with a veteran designer on the campaign for WSU Tri-Cities' Startup Weekend, an event aimed at turning ideas into business enterprises.
All that experience also landed her an internship with Tri-City designer Erin Anacker, who has a podcast called Below the Fold and involves conversations with female designers. Anacker also works to connect female designers with clients and Flatau said she learned a lot about the business and making connections.
Understanding her potential
Flatau isn't entirely set on her next steps after graduation.
She'd love to earn a master's degree in fine arts, she said, but plans on waiting. She expects to do some freelance designing for a while also helping her family sell fruit and flowers at farmers markets this summer.
But she credits WSU Tri-Cities for setting her up to work in a field she loves.
"There are so many people at this campus who have encouraged me along the way," she said. "These key people recognized and then helped further my strengths and abilities, until I finally now have an understanding of my own potential."
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald