by Shana Lombard, Communications Assistant


The fall 2018 semester came to a close with the Multicultural Graduation Celebration in December 2018.

Students donned special graduation stoles made with fabric representative of the four culturally-based student centers on campus while giving a speech of their time at WSU and a toast to those who’ve helped them along the way. Faith Price, Director of Native American Student Services, also makes Native students Pendleton stoles to wear in addition.

December 2018 graduates Malik Johnson (Blackfeet) and Becka Oehler (Tlingit).
December 2018 graduates Malik Johnson (Blackfeet) and Becka Oehler (Tlingit).

This special night takes place before the university commencement to give students a more intimate environment to express thank yous to the faculty, staff and professors who have guided them through a journey, many of whom’s families haven’t undergone at all.

Two students from the Native American Student Center participated in the special night, Malik Johnson (Blackfeet) and Becka Oehler (Tlingit). These two students attribute science class studies in their secondary education that sparked something in them to want to know more.

Becka Oehler came to Washington State University after a year spent at the University of Washington and some time spent in California preparing herself to reenter the university atmosphere. After taking general education classes at a local community college and feeling confident that she found a program that fit her better than her previous university, she left the Golden State and headed to the Palouse.

At Washington State, Oehler quickly felt she was in the right place.

“I originally went to UW and I hated it, my program specifically. It was not a good environment for me. Here in my degree field, we’re a really open environment because it’s more one on one and not 200 people to a teacher,” Oehler said later adding that she liked UW itself, just not her degree program.

Oehler got involved in research her junior year that paved the way for her to expand into her own research project. Her study is on how light affects fibers with different colors. Her research project was one of six physics research projects presented at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in February 2017.

As for what got her into the astrophysics realm, Oehler said a high school project about black holes gave way for her science teacher at the time to really push Oehler into wanting to know more about astronomy and physics.

With college research experience under her belt, Oehler has used her degree as a way to help put on physics demonstrations for camps that bring youth to the university, such as helping with the Na-ha-snhee Camp with WSU Native Programs in Spokane for the last two summers. Oehler loves doing physics demos because of how excited the youth get when seeing things get dropped or lit on fire.

“The demonstrations use basic principles but they’re really entertaining,” Oehler said.

Oehler hopes that her current research can be used in the medical and technology fields. She also wants to inspire more Native American youth to go into STEM-related fields because the field lacks people of color and even more so women.

“I just want to let younger kids know their teachers aren’t right 100% of the time that they can do this. You might not be the best at math right now but that may change,” Oehler said.

Something Malik Johnson learned in high school science class brought him to WSU as well.

In the fourth grade, Johnson learned about zoology and from then on was ready to devote his education towards it. Excited to see a sloth in real life, Johnson learned the Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium had a sloth that didn’t have its own exhibit. In order to see the sloth, Johnson signed up in the spring of 2012 to be a youth volunteer and has volunteered there ever since.

“I was looking online for sloths, just so I could see them because I love them not because they’re cute, but because they’re cool evolutionarily, biologically,” Johnson said.

When Johnson was a child, he grew up watching a popular children’s television show, The Wild Thornberrys, where the father of the Thornberrys, Nigel, travels the world making wildlife documentaries. Johnson feels his degree also stems from watching the TV series.

“This major is legitimizing what I’ve always inspired to do, to be like Nigel Thornberry,” said Johnson.

During his four years as a Coug, Johnson has been a part of clubs that have kept him busy: the raptor club, the wildlife society, and organizations such as the Grizzly Bear Research facility, the Palouse Conservation District, and the wild amulet facility. Johnson soaked up every opportunity these clubs provided him. In his time, Johnson has planted trees all across the Palouse, tracked wolves through their kill sites and is continuing what he did at Point Defiance, educating the public on wildlife, wildlife conservation and ecology.

Johnson has also been a part of some organizations who haven’t seen a whole lot of diversity as well. Johnson recalled back in 2015, when he was Vice-President of the raptor club, he and the club’s president were both African-American.

“It was pretty cool to have people of color represented in a student organization in a field that doesn’t have a lot of people of color in it so I’m pretty proud of that,” Johnson said.

As for what’s next for him, Johnson is currently in Tacoma, Washington working at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium working as an educational interpreter until September. After September, Malik will spend his next two years in Paraguay working for the U.S. Peace Corps before returning to school.

“As long as I get to be out in the woods and spend some time with animals doing science, have a field season, have an off season; I can do some form of conservation and education,” Malik said. “I’m contributing to a body of knowledge that’s going to progress our natural environment and natural resources. That’s what’s important to me.”