Alumni Put Down Roots in Spokane

By Aryn Gessel, '11, Andrea Idso, '12, and Tara Sackman, '11

Amir Rizk's, '05, journey to Whitworth was transoceanic. Born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, he wanted to attend a Christian college; he liked Spokane so much that he stayed after graduating from Whitworth.

College towns have seen an increasing number of alumni staying close to their alma mater in recent years. Over 31 percent of Whitworth graduates from the past 10 years live in the metropolitan Spokane area, according to a survey by the university's Alumni & Parent Relations and Annual Giving office. 

Some alumni choose to stay for the community or jobs in Spokane. Others elect to stay because of relationships they've made.  

Staying Close to Campus

Rizk transferred from the American University of Cairo, where he had studied for two years. His father heard of Whitworth when he visited Spokane and met a relative of then-president Bill Robinson. Rizk applied and was accepted for spring semester 2003.

Description: Amir.jpgA computer science major, Rizk's best memories of Whitworth are attending classes taught by good professors. He served as a photographer for The Whitworthian and worked on campus over the summer as a library assistant and a carpet cleaner.

The transition from undergraduate to alumnus was hard for Rizk, and he stuck close to Whitworth the first year after he graduated. A friend forwarded him campus e-mails to keep him informed about Whitworth events. Rizk also sat in on a class on new religious movements, just for fun.

"It was hard to leave at first," he says. "I definitely miss Whitworth."

Rizk didn't plan on staying in Spokane, but an internship with Partners International led to a full-time job after graduation. He is now a systems administrator with the organization and is currently working on a master's degree in information management through the University of Oregon.

Most of Rizk's friends from Whitworth stayed for a while after graduation. The adjustment was gradual, Rizk says, because not all of his friends left at once.

The lack of traffic on Spokane streets is a big plus for Rizk, as well as the presence of snow. As a native of Egypt, he had never seen snow before. His roommates introduced him to snowball fights and sledding, Rizk says.

Although he enjoys Spokane, Rizk doesn't plan on staying permanently. After completing his master's degree, he would like to find work in Egypt or in Portland, Ore.

"I don't know if I will spend the rest of my life here," he says. "I'm happy being here right now."

Like Rizk, many alumni stay in Spokane for job opportunities. Working as an intern while attending college has landed many graduates in careers after leaving Whitworth.

Internships Create Connections

April (Brast) Smith, '05, came to Whitworth from Colorado Springs, Colo., and majored in communications with a minor in marketing. She was connected with the Spokane Symphony through Whitworth Career Services. She took a job at the symphony after graduation, and is now a senior marketing specialist for GEO Engineering.

Description: Brast.JPG"Our economy isn't doing that well, but Spokane is a tight community and it's all about who you know," Smith says.

Smith has lived in Spokane for five years and has been pleasantly surprised by how much she likes the area. The city didn't seem very active to Smith as an undergrad. Now she loves how connected she feels to the community and says Spokane is the right place for her. Fellow alumni tell her how much they miss Spokane, and they love coming to visit.

 "I'm really proud and honored to say that I graduated from Whitworth and I feel like people respect that about me. I don't know what I'd do if I left. It'd be really hard to start over," Smith says. 

Like Smith, Serena (Fadel) Wang, '05, had an internship that developed into a full-time job once she graduated.

Wang, originally from Boise, Idaho, applied to Whitworth on the recommendation of her high- school swim coach. As a student, Wang completed an internship with Spokane's Pathology Associates Medical Laboratory (PAML). After graduating with a biochemistry degree, she continued working with PAML in the virology lab. Wang still works with PAML part time, and also coaches an after-school swim team.

In addition to her job with PAML, Wang stayed in Spokane because her husband, Kevin Wang, '05, got a job coaching Whitworth's swim teams. The two married shortly after graduation.

Maintaining Relationships

Relationships are another common reason alumni stay close to their colleges. Rachelle (Kert) Hartvigsen, '94, planned on moving to southern California to live with family after graduating with a degree in philosophy. Then she started dating a local man, whom she later married.

"When I was single, Spokane felt small and uncultured," Hartvigsen says.

Description: Rachelle.jpg
Rachelle and Kurt Hartvigsen at Spokane's Riverfront Park

Now, she has a different perspective. Spokane offers great schools, and sports and family-friendly events, although it might not be the most happening place for singles, Hartvigsen says. She plans on staying in Spokane permanently with her husband and children. The Hartvigsens live close to Whitworth and attend campus events regularly.

In the future, Hartvigsen would like to be a middle-school counselor, but for now she is a stay-at-home mom who occasionally substitutes for school counselors.

Hartvigsen enjoys Spokane's many opportunities for outdoor recreation, such as cross-country skiing, local lakes, camping, hiking and the Centennial Trail. Being close to family and friends means there's no reason she'd ever leave, Hartvigsen says.

The decision to return to Whitworth was a difficult financial choice for Hartvigsen to make each summer. However, the relationships she made were well worth the tuition, she says.

"There's no way money can buy the friends and experiences I still treasure from my time there," Hartvigsen says. "I love being a part of the Whitworth community."

Relationships were the primary reason Kevin Benson, '00, stayed in Spokane after graduating. He came to Whitworth from Kenai, Alaska, and studied speech communications and theatre.

After graduating, Benson had planned to move to Seattle or Los Angeles to try his hand at stage and film acting. But first, he got a job at a summer camp in Spokane and shared a house with some friends.

"It was a couple of months before I thought, 'I've got a good group of friends here, personally and professionally,'" Benson says. "I didn't want to move and start over from scratch when all the people closest to me were in Spokane. I didn't want to leave that good community."

Description: BENSON, K.JPGBenson worked in Whitworth's Institutional Advancement Office and as a youth minister before landing his current job as manager of the Providence Center for Faith and Healing at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital. He also teaches public speaking courses at Whitworth as an adjunct professor.

"I learned at Whitworth that I value the people I love more than I value money, or prestige, or becoming famous on stage or in movies," Benson says. "So in some ways I gave up what I wanted to do, but I don't for one second regret it."

Benson realizes the possibility that he might find work elsewhere, or be relocated to a different city, given the current state of the economy. But if the choice were up to him, he said he would love to stay in Spokane forever. Right now, he wants to stay because his wife's family lives in Spokane and he enjoys his work.

"I absolutely love how my life has unfolded in Spokane," he says. "It was the best decision I've made in a lot of ways."