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Historic day for Whitworth graduates

Crystal Viken files into Whitworth College graduation Sunday wearing a  Navajo dress woven by her aunts from her grandmother's pattern. 
 (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)
Crystal Viken files into Whitworth College graduation Sunday wearing a Navajo dress woven by her aunts from her grandmother's pattern. (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

More than 600 students marked the end of an era as they officially became the last class to graduate from Whitworth College during a ceremony held Sunday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

Next year, the school’s graduates will receive diplomas from Whitworth University, a name that administrators believe better reflects the diversity of programs offered by the institution.

Students wearing caps and gowns lined up behind signs highlighting their courses of study.

Adam Hewitt who stood by the mathematics sign, said, “I’m a very different person than I was when I came to Whitworth.” The 22-year-old student from Shoreline, Wash., was graduating with a bachelor’s degree and considering entering the ministry.

Bobbilee Walston, 24, was graduating with a bachelor’s in political science.

“I’m excited about this day. It’s been a long time coming,” said Walston, who, along with student Noah Patterson, received an Alumni Ideals award.

Walston was one of 12 graduating students belonging to the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative. The program, a partnership between Whitworth and the Tacoma Northwest Leadership Foundation, recruits minority students from urban Tacoma and experienced a 100 percent success rate for graduating its first class. Scholars represent six continents and speak 13 languages. Two-thirds come from low-income households where family members have never attended college.

Keynote speaker Dale Soden, a Whitworth history professor, shared how the past leaders shaped the values that the college, which moved three times and once was located in Tacoma, has today.

Although the 117-year history of graduating students under the name of Whitworth College is ending, Soden said, the values of the Presbyterian college will continue.

Those values helped Crystal Viken accomplish her goals. The 22-year-old, who had a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, graduated with just under a 3.7 GPA and in a semester less time than did most of her peers.

John Yoder, a political science professor, said Viken did an incredible project that looked at high-achieving students from low-income families to try to define what made them successful. In all the cases, there was a friend, teacher or family member with high expectations.

“She always struck me as the kind of student who was in class because she really wanted to learn,” Yoder said.

But she also dealt with hardship.

Viken, who is part Navajo Indian, said she initially felt like she didn’t fit in at Whitworth. She chose the college in part because of the scholarship money, but hadn’t expected the stark difference between the ethnic mix of her hometown and the lack of diversity in Spokane.

“It was very much of a culture shock over there,” said Viken, as she talked in a phone interview from her home in the Tacoma area several days ago.

But the shock of a totally new environment paled in comparison to the news Viken received during her freshman year. Her older sister, Emily, had been hit by a car and died. She took the news so hard that at one point Viken considered leaving college.

“She was kind of my idol growing up,” Viken said. “Getting through her death was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”

The staff at the college helped her through the challenges, Viken said. On Sunday, Viken made the trip to Spokane for her graduation.

She wore a ceremonial dress woven by her aunts using her grandmother’s special pattern and became the first member of her family to graduate from a four-year college. More than 20 family members cheered her on, some coming from as far away as Arizona.

She was recently hired by Whitworth to recruit students for the Act Six program, Viken said, adding, “I can comfortably say now that I recruit for Whitworth with all my heart.”


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