Like no class before them, they began at Whitman College virtually. The Class of 2024’s true uniqueness lies, though, in the depth and breadth each of their personal narratives adds to the Whitman community. Read some of their stories.
Los Altos, California
William Hooper started cycling around the San Francisco Bay Area with his dad the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
“We’d ride around 10 miles on the weekends, then it slowly just crept up. I was enjoying it and I started riding more and more,” Hooper says.
He spent three weeks of the following summer biking the Pacific Coast with the encouragement of his parents.
“Cycling is almost meditation for me. Spending hours, all I have to really worry about is pedaling.”
In the summer of 2019, just before his senior year, Hooper decided to challenge himself by joining a group to bike across the United States. With two guides leading the way, Hooper and a group of other teenagers made the trip from Savannah, Georgia, to the Santa Monica Pier in California in six weeks. Along the way, they rode over the Rocky Mountains and marveled at the Grand Canyon.
“I love cycling. Any excuse to ride a bike a long distance is a good one, and this gave me the opportunity to see the country in a way I hadn’t before.”
The trip was far from easy coasting. Mechanical problems, like bent wheels and broken gear shifters, and general exhaustion from long days carrying gear created fierce challenges for the cyclists. After cycling an average of 80 miles a day, the group slept on the floor at churches and community centers, often relying on help from strangers to make the trip a success.
Meaningful experiences and connections came out of some of the adversities they faced as they made their way across the patchwork of landscapes and cultures of the United States, says Hooper, noting how incredible it was to receive help from “people of all different faiths and political views.” A prime example of that generous spirit came when a teammate’s crash in the Colorado mountains led to a friendly couple helping to transport the teammate to the hospital.
Faced with many unknowns, Hooper says he came back with an increased confidence in his own abilities and an appreciation for how far a bit of determination and a love for cycling could get him.
“It’s not until I look back on it that I realize just how impressive it was.”
In the summer of 2019, Marharyta Tkachenka had an epiphany about the realities of climate change. It came when she enrolled in a United World College (UWC) summer program, Building A Sustainable Future (BASF), in Germany. The course description seemed to be in line with the biological science route she had in mind, but Tkachenka knew nothing about sustainability.
In her home country of Belarus, Tkachenka says, news about the environment often goes unnoticed when there are seemingly more
immediate issues grabbing the headlines.
“When you realize that everything you do in your life is interconnected, every choice of eating meat or using plastic, has ultimately led to this ... it’s like ‘What should I do?’”
Having never considered the severe impacts of climate change, Tkachenka found all of the 18-day program illuminating. However, the mental lightning bolt for Tkachenka was when a record-shattering heat wave hit Europe during the program. Day after day of extreme heat—temperatures over 100 degrees— connected what she was learning in the classroom with real life.
“The other students were like, super casually, ‘Oh, it’s the outcomes of climate change,’” Tkachenka says.
A young European climate activist had begun making news as she warned of the climate crisis and empowered the youth climate movement. Greta Thunberg’s “house on fire” metaphor was taking shape in reality to Tkachenka.
“I was definitely really inspired by her. What she did was a model for me. Firstly, she was not afraid; second, she was pissed off at the government,” says Tkachenka.
When Tkachenka returned to Belarus, she resolved to increase global warming awareness and make her school community more sustainable. Her key achievement was organizing a sustainability student council. The group successfully appealed to the parents association for funding for projects that would reduce school plastic waste. Tkachenka saw a marked difference with the administration afterwards, and was surprised how eager her community was to engage with the student council’s awareness efforts and sustainable solutions.
“By the end of the campaign of raising awareness, people were really different. They even sometimes created posters about plastic or climate change without my knowledge or the administration’s. We definitely reduced plastic use,” Tkachenka says.
The challenge came when Tkachenka wanted to bring her efforts to the greater Minsk area. Organized protests and marches in Belarus face bureaucratic roadblocks that suppress free speech. Instead, a campaign rally became the basis for the youth activism of the Belarusian Young Greens, the unofficial youth green party. They organized the first-ever climate strike in Belarus. Government agents patrolled the rally and took pictures of participants, including Tkachenka, while harassing the organizers about permit requirements.
“You have to believe in what you are doing so much,” Tkachenka says. “Knowing that there were a lot of people interested in what I was interested in, I was inflamed by the idea that I could do more when it comes to local and political [issues]. I think now, that will be the ultimate goal of what I learned in Germany.”
As a refugee from the South Sudan Civil War, Lydia Moriku’s path to Whitman was anything but straighforward. After both her parents and a brother were killed in the conflict, Moriku also lost contact with her sister. She was just 13 years old when she arrived, alone, at a United Nations refugee camp at the Ugandan border.
“They gave me tins and some cooking stuff. They made me a tent. Fortunately enough, there was a school right next to me,” Moriku says, adding that because the majority of refugees are women and children, there is a great need for education.
Provided by a refugee organization, the school was very small and only had one teacher for around 100 students. “It was made out of carpets—the roof and everything. Mind you, the weather is really very hot,” Moriku says.
Many students attended the school because their parents made them. For Moriku, it was a choice; she understood that education was her best option to move forward in life.
“For me, I knew that’s just not the end of my life. I needed to do something, something really had to work out,” she says.
Moriku spent five years in the refugee camp. She received her Uganda Certificate of Education and performed very well on exams, gaining her entry to the United World College in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the last two years of her upper school education.
There, she became involved in environmental activism and doing her part to save the planet, starting with helping clean up rivers of plastic garbage around her school.
“I feel I am a person very concerned with the environment. I hate to hear about animals dying because of pollution, such issues are so critical in my mind.”
Now at Whitman, Moriku is also working on other ways to make a difference in her new home.
In addition to being a member of the Black Student Union and Whitman African Student Association, Moriku has already become the President of International Whitties Club, where she is trying to foster an environment that encourages open dialogue.
“We want to create a space for international students to maybe share their cultural heritage,” says Moriku, adding that students of all nationalities are welcome to engage. “We want to encourage domestic students to join in because that’s how we exchange our cultures and that’s how we get to know each other’s cultures.”
Moriku plans to major in biology at Whitman and has her sights set on a career in medicine. She’d like to become a pediatrician or gynecologist since she sees children and women needing the most help in Africa. Women’s health in particularly isn’t taken seriously, Moriku says, adding that her career goal was galvanized by a video she saw about an African woman who had to be transported to the United States for reproductive treatment after years of being neglected.
“In my head, I imagine if I was a doctor or gynecologist, maybe she would not have to go through all she went through.”
Having spent years hearing his father’s good friends and fellow Whitman alums raving about their college experiences, Will Wrigley spent most of high school looking forward to coming to Whitman. As an outdoor enthusiast, he was especially intrigued by the college’s Outdoor Program (OP).
But even before he imagined himself skiing and rafting with the OP, Wrigley’s dream was to summit Denali, the mountain looming large in the background of his childhood in Alaska.
Wrigley remembers, at 8 years old, meeting up with his uncle at a pizza restaurant to hear stories of his recent summit of Denali, and seeing how his uncle glowed with accomplishment.
“I think that memory really stuck with me. Just seeing the bliss you get after accomplishing something that you really wanted to do. I never really told anybody that was my goal until I was a sophomore.”
In May of his junior year, right after turning 17, Wrigley, along with his father, uncle and cousin, flew to Denali’s base camp. He’d been looking forward to it for so long that it didn’t hit him how physically challenging it would be until he started the climb. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, has a summit rate of only 40%. With around 140 pounds of gear on his back, Wrigley made his way up and down the mountain, dropping off supplies and reascending to become acclimated to the elevation.
On one of the first nights, a whiteout blizzard separated Wrigley and his father from his uncle and cousin. His uncle and cousin spent the night in an igloo and made it back safely to the lower camp. For an anxious night, he thought that it would be the end to their climb.
“That realization that this could really be over now was disappointing. I had a big switch in attitude. I started thinking, ‘Wow, how many people have stood here and seen this view, especially as a 17-year-old with their dad?’ If I hadn’t made that switch in attitude, I probably wouldn’t have gone up.”
Other obstacles came: Will became hypothermic on the way up to the 17,000-foot camp. Then dwindling food supplies put pressure on the group’s chance to summit as they waited out winds of up to 50 mph. Finally, at 10:15 p.m. on June 4, 2019, they reached Denali’s 20,310-foot peak.
Wrigley was overcome with a sense of pure happiness.
“It was like every trouble I’d ever had didn’t matter and I knew then that anything hard that I would need to do in the future, I could do.”
Although Kylie Casper began 10th grade at her local public school, she soon found herself spending evenings volunteering with a community program of another—One Stone—a tuition-free private school in Boise that emphasizes inclusion and youth leadership.
Casper enjoyed the program so much, she transferred to One Stone in 11th grade. She was excited for the chance to make her mark by joining the student-led board of the school, which relies on student initiative to foster change and make decisions.
She got additional lessons in leadership serving on the board of Wild Hearts, a nonprofit that provides free outdoor adventure programs to help girls age 12 to 18 grow their confidence. She also filled the student board member position for the Boise Airport Commission, where her role included reviewing plans regarding finances and future endeavors.
“It was such a great experience for me to learn more about the economic impact the airport had on the city, as well as getting to know more about the airport that I’ve been traveling though my entire life.”
The peak of Casper’s advocacy work came in January 2019, during her junior year. Through the student-run organization People for Unity, Casper co-organized Idaho’s first re-titled Womxn’s March. The shift to “womxn” was made to symbolize the intersectionality of all people who identify as female.
“Being a woman looks different for everyone, and that’s totally OK,” Casper says.
In the buildup to the event, Casper sought input from the City of Boise and other organizations in order to learn how to organize a march. Her team had to tackle issues with funding and securing permits to make the march a success.
“It was very much a learning experience. If I were to do it again, I’d do a lot of things differently. In the end it turned out super powerful,” says Casper.
The march itself was memorable, but the speeches in front of the Capitol are most vibrant in Casper’s mind. In addition to having former White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri as their featured speaker, the group had speakers from all walks of life, Casper says. She, along with her co-
organizer, also had the opportunity to speak to a roaring crowd from the building’s imposing stone steps, and admits tearing up as she spoke.
“I lived in a very privileged bubble in Boise. This experience ... opened my eyes to how important it is to get different perspectives and work together to come up with the best solution to reach as many people as possible. You can try to do everything by yourself, but that will not get you nearly as successful results.”
Queens, New York
As president of her high school’s Black Student Union, Robenia Herbert facilitated fundraising for everything from informative workshops with local businesses to educational trips. In her junior year, she organized a three-day trip to Washington, D.C.—open to members and nonmembers alike—to explore the nation’s capital.
The group’s itinerary included a trip to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, where Herbert recalls the installation of a Jim Crow-era railway car with segregated seating and an exhibit dedicated to Emmett Till as being particularly impactful.
“What I really appreciated was that people really got to learn something. It’s not that you don’t know, it’s just that people don’t take time out to focus on African American history, which is so vast,” Herbert says.
Back at her high school, Herbert dedicated herself to sharing that history and the damage caused by structural, systemic racism by organizing workshops for the “Black Lives Matter at School” program’s annual Week of Action, a series of anti-racist programs and events held in schools around the country. She created rotating presentations on gentrification and colorism. Students could also get involved with a pop-up museum of Black leaders with accompanying student presenters.
In addition, Herbert was also very involved with her school’s mentorship programs, serving as a “big sibling” to five underclassmen. In this role, she prioritized creating relationships and educational opportunities with her mentees by checking in on how they were doing, planning activities with them outside school, and acting as a go-between for teacher and student communications.
“I was everything in one, but less formal than an academic coach or advisor,” Herbert says. “I could give them the real details and be there for them socially.”
College Place, Washington
Neftali Segovia-Cruz grew up knowing she wanted to come to Whitman. As a Walla Walla area local, she’d fallen in love with the campus and was excited about the idea of attending college close to home.
What she never imagined was that she’d be recruited to the college in her senior year of high school by Whitman Women’s Soccer Coach Michelle Voiland. After all, she’d only seriously started playing soccer as a junior.
Segovia-Cruz had played soccer in elementary school, but left the game after an injury. Between that and her father’s injury history when he played soccer in high school, it took time for Segovia-Cruz and her family to be comfortable with her playing competitively.
When she was ready to return to the sport, Segovia-Cruz tried out for—and made—the Walla Walla United Soccer Club (WWUSC) team.
“I’d never received any training or anything like that so I was literally starting at zero. I didn’t know how to kick the ball, I didn’t know how to do anything,” says Segovia-Cruz.
After that experience, she felt more confident trying out for the team at Walla Walla High School.
As a starter on the Wa-Hi junior varsity team in her junior year, Segovia-Cruz proved to be a scoring machine. She worked hard, training for and competing in different tournaments with the school and club teams and practicing with her younger brother, who she says keeps her on her toes and motivated. In her senior year, she made the varsity team as a starter—and caught the attention of Coach Voiland.
At Whitman, Segovia-Cruz plays outside midfielder—one of the most demanding positions on a soccer team—and is excited to play her first college soccer season in her hometown.
“It’s been challenging to have a new team and new coaches, but there’s a good team dynamic.”
Soccer isn’t the only activity Segovia-Cruz is passionate about. She’s also involved in folklorico, a traditional Mexican dance.
“I’m Hispanic and I went through a time period where I didn’t really understand my identity,” Segovia-Cruz says.
Folkorico allowed Segovia-Cruz to connect with her culture and history, which she is now proud to share with the community through performances her dance group puts on at local fairs and other events.
Language is another way Segovia-Cruz connects with her heritage. At home, she speaks English, but when she began school her first language was Spanish, which she still uses to communicate with many extended family members. Now comfortable switching back and forth between Spanish and English, Segovia-Cruz knows being able to speak two languages is an asset—one she often uses to help community members who are experiencing language difficulties.
Communicating with and helping others defines Segovia-Cruz’s future goals, too. She currently plans to major in psychology and minor in sociology, with the hope of one day becoming a clinical psychologist.
Whitman’s supportive community was part of what drew Jackson Lancaster to the college. So when the self-described very sociable student was accepted through the college’s early decision option, he wasn’t about to let the fact that his first-ever semester of college would be held entirely online stand in his way of connecting with his classmates. Instead, Lancaster decided to recreate the camaraderie he’d seen on his campus visit in the virtual world.
“I wanted to create a community to bring people together, especially during COVID.”
Each year, Whitman establishes a Facebook group for the incoming class to connect—but Lancaster wanted additional, more interactive ways first-years could get to know each other before they could meet in person.
In early 2020, he teamed up with another early decision student, Emily Mowry, to create a Snapchat group, drawing 30-plus future classmates, after posting in the class Facebook group. From there, a few students started playing video games together through Discord, a chat app popular with gamers. The Discord group hit it off and Lancaster came up with the idea to create a Discord server, a dedicated platform for a community to chat and video call. In its first month, the “Whitman Gang” server picked up around 30 people, more than Lancaster expected.
Making friends can be difficult without the on-campus casual interactions where students might exchange social media handles and phone numbers, says Lancaster. “But on the Discord server, being able to join in on my game nights or something—then you start meeting people.”
In March 2020, when more future Whitties learned they’d been admitted, the server experienced a huge jump, from 30 to 300 members in just a few weeks. Keeping tabs on it all is a council of moderators who manage the various communication channels devoted to specific topics like memes, interests and personal stories.
While the server has had a few conduct issues, Lancaster has been pleased to see how fast community members speak up or notify a moderator to make sure people respect the chat rules. “People want to create a safe space. That’s been the most interesting thing to see.”
Upperclassmen joined in on Discord as well, offering their firsthand experiences of Whitman and information about the opportunities the college offers. That’s a role Lancaster looks forward to taking on as he connects newly admitted students from the Class of 2025 to the server. He’s also worked with the Office of Admission to brainstorm new ways to expand the server and align the digital space with campus, such as sharing details of campus events and creating spaces for clubs to communicate.
“It’s been a great experience so far and I’ve met a lot of really great friends. It’s allowed people to get a sense of community within Whitman without being on campus.”
At 12 years old, Merry Cockroft started selling her home-baked cupcakes. By 14, she’d launched a website and her business, Merry’s Wee Cakes, was attracting a much larger clientele.
Although she describes baking and cooking for people as “one of her love languages,” doing so professionally initially took Cockroft out of her comfort zone. “I was a very quiet person,” she says, explaining the challenges of marketing herself and her business.
Cockroft’s baking career peaked in her sophomore year, when she was hired by the Washington Department of Transportation to bake 500 cupcakes for the grand opening of a new ferry in Bremerton. Governor Jay Inslee was among the high-profile guests at the launch event.
Finding success with Merry’s Wee Cakes helped the quiet student find her voice: “It really pushed me in the direction of realizing that I have something to offer,” she says. At the same time, Cockroft was also realizing that she was interested in using her voice for other purposes.
Cockroft joined her school’s student government and started engaging in environmental advocacy. She established her school’s first environmental club, the Green Team, while creating her own environmental policy internship at City Hall. She also got more involved with the Episcopal Church. In her junior year, she attended the Al Gore Climate Reality Leadership Corps in Atlanta, where she heard minister and activist William Barber II speak about environmental justice.
“It was then that I fully realized the importance of faith communities in addressing the intersectionality of environmental justice, food/health justice and anti-poverty issues.”
When she returned from the training, she interned with the Earth and Spirit ministry at Bainbridge Island’s Grace Episcopal Church, where she helped expand the children’s Sunday school curriculum to include “creation care” education and started leading presentations on why Christians should be involved in seeking environmental justice.
In her first year at Whitman, Cockroft continues to use her voice to help others and to advocate for justice in many forms. She helps educate school-age kids about civil rights as a volunteer with Whitman Teaches the Movement, encourages members of the community to take part in the civic process through her involvement with Whitman Votes, and offers support to her fellow students as a Peer Listener with the Whitman College Counseling Center.
Cockroft is also the Inclusion Fellow for Religious and Spiritual Life for the Intercultural Center, where she works with Interfaith Chaplain Adam Kirtley “to support religious and spiritual identities on campus, and to provide opportunities for students to find wholeness and discover what their own spiritual identity means to them.”
In this role, she’s already played a key part in organizing the installation of Whitman’s meditative labyrinth and has launched “Around the Table,” a monthly arts digest of religion- and spirituality-focused reflections and poetry from the campus community.
Erin McKinney first visited Whitman on the way home from a trip to the Oregon coast. A lifelong competitive swimmer, McKinney eagerly met with the assistant swim coach for a quick chat. She was impressed by the close-knit community.
“I came during the Blue and Gold Meet and that really made me want to come here just because there was so much support on the team. People were constantly cheering, people were dressed up in banana suits. It really just seemed like a family,” McKinney says.
In her senior year of high school, McKinney was swim team captain. She won all four of her state competition races. She also set her high school’s record in the 100-yard breaststroke and in relays. Having spent the past year mostly out of the pool, McKinney prepared herself for a more low-key college start. She was ready to focus on being part of the team and community, while making the best of a more limited season. That’s why she was pleasantly surprised when she got close to her best times at her first college swim meet.
“It was pretty exciting. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, just staying positive and hoping that we’d have a more competitive season next year,” McKinney says.
In high school, McKinney’s love for swimming extended into volunteering as a coach with the Special Olympics swim team. She soon found that being someone to talk with was just as important as being a coach.
“I could tell I was making a difference in their lives, however small, and that also changed my perspective on community engagement, because they showed me that I really make an impact.”
McKinney also participated in her school’s Partners Club, where she spent her lunch hours getting to know special education students. She credits the experience with helping her understand different perspectives.
At college, McKinney is participating in the Whitman Friends Mentor Program, which pairs Whitman students with Walla Walla elementary schoolers to create positive and supporting relationships.