Homing in on Walla Walla

Talia Rudee

After many Whitman students graduate, they don’t want to leave the vast wheat fields, quaint Main Street and friends and faculty who have enriched their lives so much over four years in small-town Walla Walla.

After attending Whitman himself, alumnus John Bogley ’85 experienced an initial draw to Walla Walla due to a job offer at Whitman as director of admission, but Walla Walla became more than a place where he lived because of a job. Walla Walla quickly became home.

“I didn’t know how long I was coming back for, but I haven’t looked back since,” said Bogley. “It was fun to be able to carve out a life in a community that had been all around me while I was at Whitman but I knew very little about.”

And that’s exactly what many graduates have done lately. Today, Walla Walla has more to offer to recent graduates than during Bogley’s time directly after graduation. Students are now realizing that staying in Walla Walla is worth more than just a job.

“There is an allure in Walla Walla today … there is a vibrant downtown community, a growing professional network with people early in their career and a peer network that is pretty invigorating,” said Bogley.

The vibrant downtown consisting of food and wine certainly reflects the decision of alumnus David Hancock ’12 to stay in Walla Walla. Aside from his decision to stay with his significant other––about halfway through his time at Whitman––Hancock ultimately decided that his true calling was to a be a chef. Hancock realized that sit-down meals at home were a small but very important part of his childhood.

“A real meal was a given, and now that I think back, it was a really important part of growing up,” said Hancock. “I had a subconscious desire to make good food for myself and I don’t mind putting a lot of time into it.”

With his discovered passion, Hancock began to research programs, and Walla Walla Community College hit the spot.

The director of the program has had extensive experience, such as working at the Space Needle, and had many ideas for getting the program involved with local restaurants and wineries, the essence of the up-and-coming downtown scene.

“He really got me energized to do it,” said Hancock.

Hancock now takes culinary classes at Walla Walla Community College, where he still plays the role of a student, but in moving on from Whitman, he has found a new way to open up to the community.

“Whether it’s something as big as the fair or just an event at the winery or a fundraiser that an Americorps friend is putting on … there’s such a variety of things … As much as there is a variety of things going on at Whitman, there’s that much, if not more, going on in Walla Walla,” said Hancock.

The additional peer and professional networks reflect the post-grad experience of alumna Amy Liechty ’12 in Walla Walla.

Liechty found herself back in her college town after securing a job at the Kirkman House following an internship dealing with her recently found passion of urban planning and architecture that she held during her senior year at Whitman.

“I decided that I couldn’t pass up such an incredible opportunity to get experience in a field I really wanted to enter, and I don’t think I would have an opportunity like that too many other places,” said Liechty.

Although they have moved on from Whitman, the graduates that stay in Walla Walla do not completely abandon their past lives. People from Whitman can be a comforting community as well as valuable resources.

“The peers and professors at Whitman are some of the most incredible people I’ve had a chance to meet,” said Liechty. “[These are] friendships and various relationships that I really cherish, and I hope [they] stay in my life for years to come.”

That very sort of connection can give some students a sense of community unique to anything else in their lives that is great to keep around.

Alumna Tillie Gottlieb ’11 has moved to different places her whole life, living in five different countries for the first 18 months of her life, and then moving around to various countries and throughout the rest of the United States.  Walla Walla provided a kind of intimacy in a town that Gottlieb never had the chance to experience.

“I had the impulse to stay and build the community and feel more like I was part of one because I haven’t really felt this deeply connected to any one place in the world before,” said Gottlieb.

Gottlieb now works in the admissions office, building a professional life in Walla Walla. She also tends to a community garden plot with boyfriend Hancock where she extends her roots beyond the workplace.

For alumna Alegria Olmedo ’12, Walla Walla and Whitman were her only cohesive communities in the United States as an international student from Ecuador. She came to realize the value of this by first trying out big city life in Seattle, where she worked on a summer internship.

Alegria Olmedo ’12 is spending three months back in Walla Walla.  Photo by Adam Brayton.

“Even though Seattle had been very fun and it was definitely good to get outside the bubble and have a new environment for a few months, I just liked Walla Walla better,” said Olmedo.

Olmedo is in Walla Walla on a work permit that holds for another three months and wanted to make the most out of her stay abroad.

“If I just have three months left in the States, I’d rather be here than anywhere else,” she said. “I was really excited to come back to Walla Walla [and] not [be] back at school. I was excited to meet new people.”

Overall, all graduates have reflected on positive experiences living in Walla Walla after undergraduate study but have not dismissed Whitman completely. A balance between the Walla Walla community and the Whitman bubble has allowed for the most fulfilling lives.

While Whitman alumni may find themselves back in Walla Walla for many big reasons, what can ultimately inspire a person to stay can be something simple. Gottlieb realized her love of Walla Walla after working at the local restaurant Graze during a summer.

“I love living here and I think that just being here for a summer and enjoying what Walla Walla has to offer is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a Whitman student living in Walla Walla,” said Gottlieb.