Meet the following Wildcats—many first-generation college students—who appreciate their Central experience because it provided them with the confidence, tools, and means to become the best versions of themselves.
What makes CWU different from other institutions? For some, it’s the small classes. It’s the professors who know them by name and spend time with them to help them learn. For others, it’s the sense of community they found—a place where they fit in and belong. It’s participating in a campus club, organization, or activity—and making personal connections that can last a lifetime.
Oscar Torres, Engineer, Rock Star
After he graduated from Sunnyside High School, Oscar Torres, now 28, wasn’t sure college was even an option for him. He had participated in the Upward Bound program at his school, and took a few summer classes at Yakima Valley College, but wasn’t certain of his next move.
“One of the coordinators at YVC asked me if I had thought about college,” the soft-spoken Torres recalled. “I was kind of applying for college, and kind of not. He was working for CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program) at Washington State University and encouraged me to fill out an application for WSU.” CAMP provides academic and financial support to freshman students from migrant or seasonal farm working backgrounds.
Torres said he was rejected for ad- mission but the coordinator must have made some calls because about a week before the fall semester he received an acceptance letter for the upcoming term.
“I told my mom—and she’s a single mom and there were four of us—and she said she didn’t want me to go. I was the oldest one and she said I needed to go to work. I yelled at my mom and I said,
‘I am going to college in a week, with or without your help.’ I don’t talk to my mom like that, and I have so much re- spect for her because of everything she did for me and my brothers and sisters, but I was going to go to college.
“A week later, as I was packing to leave, she said, ‘Okay.’ And she even paid my dorm fee and then she drove me there.”
But WSU wasn’t a good fit. “The classes were so big. I’m a very social person but I felt like I would go to a class and I would never see the same person twice.”
“I was a construction management student by day and rock star by night.”
“There was just no connection there,” he said. “But I hated the thought of having to go back home and say I couldn’t make it. I wasn’t going to give up. Failure was not an option.”
While visiting a friend enrolled at Central, he decided to tag along for some of her classes.
“I met some of the professors and the classroom was just like a high school setting, not so big and impersonal, with maybe 30 students,” he said. “And the professor actually knew their names.
“I went back to WSU and filled out the application to transfer to Central right away,” he said.
Torres thrived at CWU where he enrolled in the construc- tion management program and connected with like-minded people who enjoyed talking about building things.
“When I think of my favorite memories at Central, there are so many things. But I think going to The Tav with guys in the program for lunch was one of my favorites,” he said.
In addition to classes and participating in the CAMP pro- gram at CWU, Torres worked part time at the local AutoZone store and was involved in the Associated General Contractors student club.
But equally important was the fact Torres was able to indulge in one of his personal passions—playing bass guitar. He even formed a band with a couple of friends.
“We would play every day at my apartment,” he said. “One day I got a note on my door from a professor who was passing by and it said, “You guys rock—keep it up! I wanted to come in but didn’t want to ruin your jam.
“I was a construction management student by day and rock star by night,” he added with a laugh. He still plays guitar in a classic rock cover band, “Cheap Red,” in the Tri-Cities area where he now lives with his wife, Crystal, who is a teacher and also a CWU graduate.
At a career fair his senior year, one of his professors introduced Torres to recruiters from Fowler General Construction.
“He said there was a company I should talk to from my area. I went to their table and introduced myself and both of the vice presidents said ‘oh, you’re the guy.’ I asked if that was good or bad and they said my professor was just talking about me and that I was from the valley.”
He was hired following an intensive interview process and started work 10 days after graduation. Today, Torres is a project engineer/field engineer overseeing a crew at the Hanford nuclear site. His job is to coordinate site clean-up staff to ensure they follow proper safety protocols, including closely monitoring how long they work in a contaminated area.
Looking back, he said his Central education “definitely” helped prepare him for his career.
“In the construction program, I can remember we were always loaded with homework. I now understand that their intent was to prepare us for what we could expect when you get out in the field.”
Axicalli Godinez, Student, Mother, Future Physical Therapist
Axicalli Godinez, 19, quickly learned what she didn’t want to do for the rest of her life when her parents took her and four of her siblings into the fields to pick cherries, asparagus, apples, and other produce.
“Dad told us that if we don’t earn an education, ‘this is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your lives,’” she said.
It made an impression on Godinez and her siblings. Her two older brothers graduated from Washington State University and are now an engineer and a nurse. One sister graduated from the University of Washington and works in health administration, while the other attended Heritage University.
Godinez was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and settled in Toppenish when she was one. After graduating from high school, Godinez considered several colleges. She decided to attend Central to be near her family members, who are helping raise her daughter, Aleena.
“Because it was closer to home I chose it [Central],” she said. “I think it was a good choice.”
Godinez, who is already a junior/senior because she took Running Start classes in high school, is pursuing a major in clinical physiology with minors in psychology and physical rehabilitation and therapy.
“The first time I was exposed to the cadaver lab, it blew my mind,” she recalled.
Her hope is to eventually work as a physical therapist or, perhaps, a nurse practitioner. She is on track to graduate next spring.
In addition to her studies, Godinez works fulltime as a support specialist at Elmview, a non-profit community organization in Ellensburg that assists people with disabilities.
“I work double shifts on the weekends and take classes five days a week,” she said. “I have two clients. I love it. I’ve created a definite bond with them. I help them with their basic needs, their money management, cooking, bathing, all sorts of things.”
Because 20-credit quarters, homework, and a job make for a pretty full schedule, Godinez said her mother cares for Aleena in Toppenish.
“I miss her a ton,” she said. “But I want her back with me for the spring quarter. She’s my main motivator. But I am always looking to the future, to what I want to be able to offer to her.”
“Being at Central has shaped me in a way I never thought I would be able to be - it's helped me find out what I want to be.”
Godinez said she’s had several mentors, including Heidi Shaw, her psychology professor at Yakima Valley College, who provided her with internships and other resources. She also credits professor Vince Nethery, who teaches clinical physiology and exercise science, and advisor Pat Coffey for guiding her during her time at CWU.
She has also been involved in CWU’s TRIO program and Ellensburg’s Aspen organization, which helps victims of abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of oppression.
“Central has made me a better person,” she said. “I think, in a sense, it’s provided me with many opportunities and options regarding what I want to do . . . being at Central has shaped me in a way I never thought I would be able to be—it’s helped me find out what I want to be.”
Leni Halaapiapi, Computer Science Whiz, Big Brother
Leni Halaapiapi is a busy guy. Now a senior majoring in computerscience (with a minor in math), he has been involved in Brother 2 Brother for four years, been in the McNair Scholars program and Cross Cultural Leadership Program, been an active member in and co-founder of the Polynesian Club, participated in the Yakima River and Olmstead Place Clean Up efforts, and served as legal guardian for his younger brother, who is in high school.
He’s done all of this while excelling in the classroom, where he has a 3.5 GPA. He’s earned a Washington State Opportunities Scholarship, a STEM Solver scholarship, a Hearst-Solver Fellowship, and a Boeing computer science scholarship, as well as the Provost/Academic & Student Life Vice Presidential Award for his impact on the lives of others at CWU.
“I learned to be involved in my community from my parents,” he said. “They taught me about just helping people when they are in need or even if they don’t need it.”
Born and raised in Hawaii (Lahaina, Maui), Halaapiapi said that despite his success, he needed help when he first arrived at college. For one thing, he said he didn’t know how to study.
“During my freshman year, I got interested in Brother 2 Brother. That organization really helped me in terms of finding out what college is all about. I’m a first-generation college student and nobody ever prepared me for going to college.
“For my mom, the highest education she received was beauty school. My father only had a high school education and six kids,” he said. “My dad is a stone mason. He builds rock walls around houses. I learned my work ethic from him and about helping people from my mom.”
Halaapiapi said Brother 2 Brother also helped him make the decision to raise his younger brother, Logan.
“I’m the legal guardian of my brother. He’s 18 now and he has been with me the past two years,” he said. “He had dropped out of school and didn’t have much direction in his life. Being at CWU has taught me the value of an education. So, I made a deal with him: ‘It’s alright if you come live with me in Washington but you have to go back to school.’
“He was 16 and I enrolled him at Ellensburg High School. He’s in Running Start and he’s really picked himself up after dropping out of school. He just needed someone to guide him. Brother 2 Brother taught me to be a man, how to step up.”
“The thing I like is the way the university is so connected to the community. It's really a unique environment.”
Halaapiapi said he chose Central because he looked at the price of schools and it was the most affordable. He moved to Washington as a sophomore in high school to live with his grandparents but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.
“Central was my only pick for school that I was interested in,” he said. “I originally wanted to major in electrical engineering but switched to computer science. Having small class sizes and being able to meet with my professors to get the help I needed was invaluable. You can’t get that at WSU or UW. It really helped me.
“Looking back now, I’m so glad I came to Central. The thing I like is the way the university is so connected to the community. It’s a really unique environment.”
Halaapiapi recently found out he had been accepted to the University of Oregon’s master’s degree/PhD program. He’s been offered full tuition, a monthly stipend, and money for books. After graduate school, he might go into industry, do research for a company, or perhaps teach.
“One of my philosophies is, I’m always learning, always improving, always thinking: ‘What can I learn more about,’” he said. “Central taught me that.”
Cody Marxer, Planner, Rancher
Cheerleading was a ticket to college for Cody Marxer, née Sims. After graduating from Burlington-Edison High School in Burlington, Washington in 1997, she accepted a cheerleading scholarship at Washington State University.
“It wasn’t a great fit for me,” she recalled. “The classes were huge and there were too many social opportunities.”
Marxer, now 40, transferred to CWU in her sophomore year. She chose Central because “the class sizes were better and I could get to know my instructors.”
While at CWU, she also performed with the Orchesis dance company. She graduated in 2002 with a BS in exercise science and a minor in dance.
Then one of her mentors, Timothy Burnham, a CWU professor of clinical physiology and director of the exercise science division, talked her into pursuing a master’s degree in exercise science, which she completed in 2004. Marxer also joined the staff of CWU’s Recreation Center, where she worked as the fitness and membership services coordinator.
“It was wonderful. I got along so well with the staff,” she said, adding that she still counts Bob Ford, now CWU’s senior director of Alumni and Constituent Relations but formerly director of Campus Life, which included overseeing the Recreation Center, as one of her closest friends.
“In my time at Central, Bob Ford was one of my very best friends,” she said. “He was my go-to guy for everything. He has the biggest heart.”
“The staff and faculty [at CWU] are just so incredible. The connects among the students, staff, and faculty are unparalleled.”
Marxer also has a passion for horses and ranch life, passed down from her father, the late Jack Orin Sims. The avid horseman raised quarter horses, competed in rodeos (bareback riding), and owned a tack shop for many years. Not surprisingly, Marxer operated an equine massage business for many years in Ellensburg.
Fast forward to 2015 when Sims met fellow horse person Clayton Marxer on Facebook. Marxer, who works as a soil conservation technician for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, grew up on a 325,000-acre cattle ranch in southwest Montana.
“We decided to grab dinner while I was passing through Montana and that was it,” she said.
She relocated to Montana, because, “my husband is a tried and true Montana boy.” After working at various odd jobs—including as a wrangler at a dude ranch, a dental office receptionist, an equine massage instructor, an artisan cheesemaker, and a physical therapy office coordinator—she was hired in the Madison County planning department.
“I stumbled into that,” Marxer said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs around here and I got fortunate. They hired me because of my master’s degree and experience working at Central.”
In addition to their day jobs, Marxer and her husband work at the Sauerbier Ranch near Sheridan, Montana. The two help with 500-700 head of black angus cattle. In the spring and summer, they’ll move the animals to different grazing areas on Bureau of Land Management and private lands, while in the fall they’re busy with vaccinating and branding.
“Where we find our true passion and purpose is in ranching,” she said.
Despite her unusual path from cheerleader and dancer to planner and rancher, Marxer said she has nothing but fondness for Central.
“So often I find myself falling back on things I learned at Central, and I’m so glad I ended up there,” she added. “I don’t think the students realize how lucky they are until they get a few years out of school.”
Alexa Maine, Tribal Biologist, PhD Student
Alexa Maine, 29, likes to work with wet, slimy creatures. It’s something she has done since she was a student at Central Washington University (BS Environmental Biology 2010, MS Natural Resources Management 2012), and it has continued through her job as an Aquatic Propagation Lab Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and as a PhD student at the University of Idaho.
“The opportunities provided to me in biology and natural resources at Central stuck with me and gave me the experience for my job today,” she said. “The opportunities and the education I received at Central were stellar and I was definitely prepared for the job that I have. I did the same work in the lab [at Central] that I continued to do now.”
Maine’s duties for the Umatilla Tribe include designing and managing a small-scale, cold-water aquaculture facility that focuses on the development of artificial propagation techniques for Pacific lamprey and western freshwater mussels. She also guest lectures at Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College and recently began working on her doctorate at the University of Idaho.
Maine currently resides in Walla Walla with her husband, Jonathan Arthur—also a CWU graduate (2011)—who is studying to become a middle school science teacher.
“The opportunities provided to me in biology and natural resources at Central stuck with me and gave me the experience for my job today.”
While she is originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Maine spent considerable time as a child in Ellensburg, where her grandmother lived, which is why she decided to attend CWU. In fact, she said Ellensburg is still a place she considers home.
Growing up in Alaska, Arizona, and Washington also explains her passion for outdoor activities including snorkeling rivers, camping, hiking, and horseback riding. She’s such an avid equestrian, in fact, that she competed on the IHSA Equestrian team at CWU and today owns three horses.
“They’re kind of a side job and an intense hobby,” she joked.
Maine said her mentors at Central included her graduate thesis advisor, Clay Arango, associate professor of biological sciences/environmental studies at CWU. “He was totally instrumental during my studies,” she said. “I still collaborate on projects with him. He was great—and still is.”
As for the future, Maine said it could include a career in teaching and/or research.
“The freedom I had at Central to do research, that really is one of the university’s strong points,” Maine said. “My classes there really gave a sense of the variety of jobs out there and how fun they could be.”
James Segura-Mitchell, Teacher, Video Game Champ
James Segura-Mitchell, now 24, is a competitor. At Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington, he was a talented and speedy wide receiver on the football team, selected to play in the East/West All-Star Football Game after his senior year. That year, he was also part of his school’s 4 X 400 relay team that made it to the state championships.
So, it was no surprise that following high school, he was recruited and accepted a football scholarship to Central Washington University.
“My goal was to play football through my time here,” he said. “I came here because they offered me a partial tuition scholarship, plus it was close to home . . . Central just kind of fit.”
He injured his back following his red-shirt year and decided that rather than risk his health he would stop playing football and focus on his studies.
In 2016, he earned a BA in sociology with a minor in law and justice and followed that with a master’s degree in athletic administration in 2018. During his time at Central, he also worked as a graduate assistant for the campus recreation department.
“I feel like I did have a great experience at CWU,” he said. “I’m glad for the opportunities that Central gave me that perhaps another institution might not have given me.”
The need to compete, however, never left him. Then, he discovered the Madden NFL video game.
“I didn’t get into it as a teenager or in my high school years, but started playing it once I stopped playing football,” he said. “I physically couldn’t play football anymore so I took it to the virtual world. I feel like as someone who has competed his whole life, this allowed me to have an outlet to let my competitiveness come out.”
“I’m glad for the opportunities that Central gave me that perhaps another institution might not have given me.”
Segura-Mitchell, in fact, became so good at the game that he began entering and winning tournaments. In 2016, he was one of the nation’s top 16 players who competed in the Madden 16 Finals tournament in Burbank, California, and a year later was one of eight finalists to compete in a Madden 17 Tournament sponsored by the Seattle Seahawks at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. He also appeared on “Madden America,” which was broadcast on Amazon’s Twitch TV network.
“I don’t make a living playing Madden. I do it as a recreational, competitive thing,” he said. “It’s more of a hobby.”
In February, CWU’s recreation department hosted the James Segura-Mitchell CWU Madden Classic tournament for local players. Segura-Mitchell, who said he was honored to have the event named for him, was on hand to cheer-on the competitors.
His day job is as a paraeducator and a coach for the North Thurston Public Schools and he hopes to begin teaching math for the district next year. He also keeps busy raising a two-and-a-half-year-old son with his wife, Jordan, who is also a CWU graduate.
“Wherever I go from here I want to stay involved in sports whether that’s as an athletic director at a college or by being a coach,” he said. “I like to teach high schoolers. Being able to influence kids in the classroom or in sports, that’s what I want to do.”