Columbia Basin College students Royden Luckey and Oumou Sidibe were treading unfamiliar ground when they started attending classes at the community college in the fall of 2013.
Luckey, 34, hadn’t set foot in a classroom since graduating from Hanford High School in 1999.
Sidibe, 20, had moved to the United States from Mali only a year before and could barely speak or understand English.
But the recently designated All-USA Academic All Stars for CBC clearly made the best of their circumstances. They’re preparing to graduate this spring with associate degrees, sporting GPAs of 3.84 and higher. They will head off to pursue higher degrees in computer science and mechanical engineering.
Both are in Olympia today for a ceremony recognizing scholars from around the state. Their awards won them $250 scholarships from KeyBank. Luckey also won a $1,250 scholarship as part of the 2015 Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team Scholars.
While starting on the path to fulfilling personal careers was a goal, both students said they’re also looking to help others, be it through teaching or going home to help move a nation forward.
“They’re passionate about what they believe in and they’re passionate in giving back,” said Terry Marie Fleischman, CBC adjunct faculty and adviser to the Phi Theta Kappa honor society that organizes the All-USA competition at colleges around the country.
Luckey didn’t know what he wanted to do after finishing high school, he said. That led him to work for several family businesses over the years, most recently on a mung bean sprout operation. When that shut down in 2013, he decided it was time to go back to school, specifically in computer science.
Sidibe grew up in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, a western African nation. After finishing high school, her family insisted she go abroad for college. That led her to the Tri-Cities, where her aunt, Aissata Sidibe, is an associate professor of physics at CBC.
That was easier said than done. Sidibe had studied English in school but wasn’t fluent when she arrived. That could pose a problem for the advanced science and math courses she would need to become an engineer, as did the lab courses and the style of learning used in her classes.
“The biggest struggle was the hands-on learning,” she said, noting that her previous schooling was primarily lecture-based.
Financial constraints were a hurdle for Luckey, but his first few weeks of classes also led to some anxiety about adapting to the routines and demands of an academic — rather than working — life.
“Working, you work while you’re there then you go home and you’re good,” he said. “School never ends.”
Those problems weren’t so big that they held the two students back, Fleischman said. In addition to doing well in their classes, both are tutors on campus, active in the honor society and give back to the community in other ways.
“They’re remarkable students,” she said. “You wonder how they fit everything on their plate.”
More than 50 CBC students applied to be All-USA Academic All Stars this year. Non-Phi Theta Kappa members are eligible, though everyone must have at least a 3.5 grade-point average, be enrolled in school and on track to earn an associate degree.
CBC President Rich Cummins selects the college’s two winners, who are eligible for a national award.
Both students are undecided where they’ll head next. Luckey is waiting to hear from the University of Washington before deciding between continuing there or at Washington State University in Pullman. Sidibe has applications in at five universities, including the University of Texas at Austin.
Luckey is considering a future in teaching, thanks to Sidibe’s encouragement and his experiences serving as a tutor.
“It’s really rewarding to help people and make a difference,” Luckey said.
Sidibe’s ultimate plan will take years to achieve. It involves returning to Mali to work as a mechanical engineer, possibly in the mining industry or some other agency to help move her homeland forward.
“We don’t have any mechanical engineers in my country,” she said.
Their circumstances at times made pursuing their educations difficult but each said they would have done it again. Luckey‘s past workplace experiences prepared him for the rigors of higher education, he said, while Sidibe said coming to the United States allowed her to explore a new culture.