Sticking around or coming back: alumni in Walla Walla

Martina Pansze

Although the majority of students aren’t primarily attracted to Whitman because of the small city it’s a part of, many alumni choose to stay in or return to Walla Walla. 

Among the Walla Walla returnees, and those who haven’t left, are an eclectic group of alumni who stay for reasons which include waiting out grad school and job decisions with cheap rents and the creation of a small business. While some choose to be more or less integrated into the Whitman scene, Walla Walla attracts on its own, with its vibrant opportunities for food and wine, plus a wide scope of outdoor activities and landscapes nearby.

Junpei Tsuji graduated in 2014 with a studio arts major and a chemistry minor. He stayed in Walla Walla because he wanted to get more involved in the community and explore Walla Walla as a community member rather than a student.

Tsuji is doing a year of service with AmeriCorps serving at Carnegie Picture Lab, a local nonprofit that supports the art programs of the elementary schools in Walla Walla and College Place.

“The art programs in all the elementary schools were cut many years ago, and kids don’t get their first art education experience until middle school,” said Tsuji.

Carnegie Picture Lab fills this gap, and his duties there are to manage community volunteers within the organization, organize community art events and teach some art classes at Blue Ridge Elementary.

“When we go into the classrooms, kids’ faces light up, and you can really tell that they crave art as part of their curriculum. It’s amazing to see the kid that has trouble focusing suddenly be the most attentive and engaged,” said Tsuji.

Carnegie Picture Lab has chosen three artists to cover during the school year. Tsuji is teaching Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera and Vincent Van Gogh. In the classroom, Tsuji teaches a quick art history lesson on the artist and a project that is similar in style to their work.

“For example, Diego Rivera was famous for painting murals in public because he wanted art to be accessible by his community, so we taught kids the meaning behind his creative process and had them watercolor on plasterboards,” said Tsuji.

Besides Carnegie Picture Lab through AmeriCorps, Tsuji is working at Bacon and Eggs, shadowing physical therapists in town, helping coach the Whitman men’s soccer team, playing in the YMCA indoor soccer league, worked at a fishing cannery in Alaska and taking classes at Walla Walla Community College.

Tsuji says he connects with other alumni in Walla Walla from time to time.

“It seems like everyone is so busy all the time, so it doesn’t happen that frequently, but when it does, it’s a good time,” he said.

He likes the sense of community in Walla Walla as well as the friendly people, familiar faces, food scene and weather (when it’s nice). However, Tsuji said that sometimes Walla Walla does feel too small and quiet sometimes and wishes there was a large body of water.

In the future, Tsuji plans to go to graduate school for physical therapy and continue playing soccer.

A large percentage of alumni in Walla Walla, though, are graduates from the past one or two years, and many view their time here as a transition or waiting period pre-graduate school or career. Cameron Penner-Ash graduated in 2014. Upon returning from a field camp required for all geology majors, he took a job at the Colville Street Patisserie.

Penner-Ash decided that paying low Walla Walla rents and working seemed like the best option until he hears from graduate schools and jobs to which he applied. Still, he’s planned his time in Walla Walla to be a relatively short.

“No matter the outcome I plan on leaving Walla Walla before the summer,” he said.

Penner-Ash encourages everyone to explore the vibrant Walla Walla food and drink scene.

“I think a lot of people don’t quite realize how amazing of a scene we live in,” he said. “Obviously not being 21 doesn’t help a majority of the Whitman population, but you can always explore the food scene.”

Although Penner-Ash currently lives with another alumnus, he doesn’t really see many others.

“Most of my friends in Walla Walla are currently seniors, and it has been awesome watching them trudge through senior year. I can’t wait to watch them walk,” he said.

Penner-Ash said he doesn’t regret his year spent working.

“I think so many Whitties think their lives have to be immediately structured after college, but that really isn’t the case for a majority of graduates,” he said.

He thinks the pressure may be a result of the majority of Whitman students having parents with “lucrative jobs.”

“They don’t really realize that their parents took two years off between medical school or law school to teach English in some backwater city in South East Asian or pour lattes in Western Washington,” he said. “Learning to live without structure is something I have grown to love over the past year.”

Court Morgan graduated in 2007 majoring in studio art and minoring in religion. She opened and now teaches at Revolver Yoga Studio on 4th Avenue.

After graduating Whitman, she attended Central Saint Martins at the University of Arts London. She then moved to New York City to complete her 200-hour yoga teacher training while working at Patagonia and YogaWorks. Since then, she moved with Patagonia to Seattle and in late 2012 ended up back in Walla Walla to open the studio a year later.

“I had no plans to move back to Walla Walla,” said Morgan. However, with support from her YogaWorks manager in NYC, and later her Patagonia manager in Seattle, it became a serious idea.

During the process of opening the studio, Morgan was nervous that the market for an independent studio in Walla Walla wasn’t large enough. She also struggled with finding talented, well-trained  yoga teachers in a small and isolated city.

“Finding a space that was appropriately sized and had good vibes was another big challenge,” she said.

As far as the studio’s name Revolver goes, she was inspired by the Beatles album of the same name.

“That album for them was a statement of redefining their sound … that inspired me because I wanted this studio to be unlike other yoga studios that I had been to,” she said.

Morgan stays in touch with other alumni in Walla Walla, and the studio has been a great way for her to reconnect with them.

“I honestly feel more involved with Whitman now than I did when I was a student in my academic bubble,” she said.

Whitman students and faculty alike often are regular class attendees, and a few current students work the front desk.

“It’s inspiring to hear about what everyone is doing in classes, with their theses and their plans for after school. It’s fun to see lives in process during a time of really significant decision making,” said Morgan.

Morgan says Walla Walla has changed even since she was in college.

“I spend a lot of time roaming around on my bikes, ‘Claribell’ the single speed and ‘Linus’ the Dutchie, just watching the town evolve,” she said.

Although Morgan says she really enjoys the people and events the college brings to campus, she admits Walla Walla does have a significant downfall.

“I wish we had an Indian restaurant,” she said. “I keep harassing the owners at Masala in Kennewick about opening one here. No luck yet.”

Art major Lindsey A. Thompson (née Case) graduated in 2007. Thompson moved back to Walla Walla in 2012 to begin the process of starting her own clinic of acupuncture and East Asian medicine, which opened in 2013.

Thompson fell in love with Walla Walla during her time at Whitman. She also worked in town for three summers during her time as a student and taught snowboarding at Bluewood every winter.

“I felt like I developed a sense of community in the Walla Walla Valley,” she said. “I love the easy access to cycling, rock climbing, the mountains, rivers and the warmth of the overall population of Walla Walla.”

Thompson’s husband is in the wine industry and was born and raised in Walla Walla, which influenced their decision to move back.

Thompson is a licensed East Asian Medicine Practitioner (EAMP). To obtain her license, she had to complete a four-year masters program in acupuncture and oriental medicine at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, Ore., requiring roughly 3,000 hours of course work, and complete four board exams. At her clinic she practices acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion therapy, Chinese medical nutrition and Chinese herbal medicine.

Thompson stays very involved with Whitman by keeping in touch with other alumni, attending some student-alumni mixers and having a Whitman intern this past summer. She enjoys regular yoga at Revolver Studio.

“It is great living close to campus. I like having access to the climbing wall, the Whitman gym, the OP and the library,” said Thompson.

Thompson loves the restaurants and emerging music and theater scene in Walla Walla, but above all she values the community.

“Where I grew up, no one said hello to you on the street unless they personally knew you. Here it seems like nearly everyone says hello or smiles and waves,” she said.