Driven to succeed: WSU Tri-Cities grad proves doubters wrong with these secrets to success

Air Force Veteran overcomes many obstacles to graduate from Washington State University

Manny Bonilla talks about his non traditional path toward getting a computer science degree at WSU Tri-Cities.
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Manny Bonilla talks about his non traditional path toward getting a computer science degree at WSU Tri-Cities.

Manny Bonilla has spent much of his life being told he couldn’t do things.

When he tried to get his high school diploma, school officials refused. When he decided to go to college, people questioned it. And when he chose to pursue a computer science degree, people wondered if he might want to do something else.

But on Saturday afternoon, Bonilla, 35, will prove them all wrong. He will be one of 352 graduates and earn a computer science degree from WSU Tri-Cities.

“I’ve taken all of the negatives, every single negative that came up in my life ... Where people told me you have to work the fields. You have to be the gardener,” he said. “These are the things you have to learn to overcome and use them as a tool and don’t let them define you.”

Commencement starts at 1 p.m. at the Toyota Center at 7000 W. Grandridge Blvd. in Kennewick.

Bonilla, the middle of three children, was 6 years old when his family moved from Mexico to find work in the United States. They traveled up the west coast before landing in the Tri-Cities.

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Emmanuel Bonilla is graduating from Washington State University Tri-Cities with a bachelor of science degree in computer science. Noelle Haro-Gomez

Even when he was young, Bonilla was fascinated by electronics. He disassembled computers and linked VCRs together. His love for programming started at 15 when a computer programmer asked him to help build a computer.

“I spent all summer learning everything from the motherboard to the drivers to ribbon cables, everything to how to build it,” he said. “Then also to program it.”

Then his mom paid the man for the computer at the end of the summer, so Bonilla got to keep it, and he was hooked.

Driven to succeed

As he was growing up, Bonilla found one of his biggest battles was against people trying to pigeonhole him. He spoke English fluently, but he had to fight with school officials who wanted to place him with students who were just learning to speak the English language.

He remembers well-meaning school officials cautioning him against moving out of those classes, but he told them that he wouldn’t attend if he was placed in them.

“What I’m telling you is I want the hard way,” Bonilla recounted. “I want to put in the work, and they still were not wanting to let me go.”

Even as he was prepared to graduate from high school, he was told he couldn’t get a regular high school diploma. So he managed to earn his general education diploma.

Not having a formal high school diploma didn’t slow down his plans. He took some classes at Columbia Basin College, got his passport and then joined the U.S. Air Force.

He had two main reasons for joining the military: his love of the United States and the fact that it would move him closer to his ultimate goal.

“I researched all the ways and I looked at all of the avenues for how do I get to college. That was the endgame. That was the goal,” he said.

As he was preparing to join the military, he met Azure, and they married. Azure’s family helped him get his U.S. citizenship.

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Manny Bonilla is very active in clubs at WSU Tri-Cities. He is currently the president of Cougs Who Code. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The finish line

If he was driven before he joined the Air Force, he was equally driven during and after. The experience left him with a better understanding of how to be a leader and an eye for detail.

After five years of active-duty service, Bonilla returned to the Tri-Cities and started the last leg of his journey toward a college degree, but he didn’t stop being active in the community.

He jumped into work at the veterans center and with the Patriot Club, all while continuing to help raise two daughters and go to classes.

But one of his largest impacts was his help starting the Coding Cougs Club. He joined at the urging of two of his friends, and he helped lead the team this year.

It’s his organizational skills and ability to stay positive that set him apart from other students, said Bob Lewis, an associate professor of computer science. He got a front-row seat to view those skills as he watched Bonilla lead the team.

“I have seen better prepared students academically, but that degree of organization and maturity is rare in our students,” Lewis said. “There are times in computer science where you can spend hours trying to find a problem. ... An essential part of being able to do that successfully is persistence, and that’s an outcome of a positive attitude.”

He led the team through at least three 24-hour computer science challenges where the team members would need to solve a programming challenge from scratch. He brought his military experience to the planning, both before and during the event.

Now, on the eve of his graduation, Bonilla said it seems unreal to think that he will achieve the goal he’s worked this long to achieve. He is leaving school to start an internship at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“I want to set a standard for my kids that they can get to where they want to be,” he said. “It’s going to suck sometimes, but they can definitely reach that goal.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.