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Central Washington University

CWU Graduate Overcomes Adversity to Chart Positive Path in Life

Friday, June 12, 2020

Looking back on his early teen years, Central Washington University senior Alvaro “Gonzo” Gonzales never imagined he would be graduating from college and preparing for a business career only 10 years later. 

He was struggling in school, hanging out with a rough crowd, and generally heading in the wrong direction. But then one day in late 2009, his whole perspective changed. Gonzales’ uncle, Ladislado Avila, was fatally shot during a gang altercation in Toppenish, leaving a gaping hole in his life. 

Going through that sorrow showed him there was a better path forward, and ever since that day, he has been committed to following it. 

“It took my uncle passing away for me to learn certain life lessons and start to see things differently,” said Gonzales, one of 3,400 CWU graduates who will be honored this Saturday during a virtual commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. 

“I remember telling him when he was in the hospital that I was going to try harder in school. I told him I was going to get into wrestling, which he always loved. I told him I was going to go to college and make our family proud. I still think about him all the time, and I wish he got to see all of the positive changes I’ve made in my life.”

Gonzales, 25, wasted no time turning things around. The day of his uncle’s funeral, he cut ties with his longtime friends who were affiliated with gangs. He joined the wrestling team at White Swan High School (40 miles southwest of Yakima), where he attended after leaving the Toppenish School District in sixth grade. He started taking school more seriously, raising his GPA to 3.4 as a senior (2.99 cumulative) after seeing it sink as low as 1.3 during his freshman year. 

The difference between the 14-year-old Gonzales and the 18-year-old Gonzales couldn’t have been any more stark.

“When I was a freshman, I hated school because I just wanted to go back to Toppenish to be with my friends,” he said. “I didn’t lack knowledge; I lacked effort. But when my uncle died, my whole perspective changed. I knew that I didn’t want to be in the gang life anymore. I realized that those guys weren’t really my friends, so I cut them off. I got into wrestling and learned the value of hard work and discipline. That helped me become a better student and a better person.”

Gonzales said the White Swan High School wrestling coaches (Jim, Jeff and Jake Powers) were the first adults, besides his parents, who truly believed in him. They showed him how to take personal responsibility and taught him that working hard in life is just as important as it is on the mat. 

“If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have made it through high school,” Gonzales said. “They were the first people to see my potential, and I can’t thank them enough for that support. They always told me how much happier I would be if I focused on my life outside of wrestling, and I’m glad I followed their advice.”


Getting stronger with age

After proving to himself that he could overcome whatever challenge life threw at him, Gonzales decided to take on an even greater challenge by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps the day after high school graduation in 2013.

That fall, he headed off to boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif., eventually becoming a small-arms technician. And while he is proud to have served in the military, he knew he would be much happier long-term if he pursued a business degree.

That led him to Yakima Valley College (YVC), where he earned an AA in business while also working full-time and fulfilling his military commitments. Life was so frantic from 2015-17 that the staggered class schedule at CWU almost felt like a break.

Gonzales, who is graduating from CWU with bachelor’s degrees in economics, accounting, and business administration (finance), said there were times when he would work 14 days straight while also going to school full time at YVC.

“The hardest part was trying to balance my schedules, but it’s been much better since I got here,” he said.

But there was no slowing him down at CWU, where he has maintained a breakneck pace. Aside from pursuing three degrees, he works as a Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration security officer for the state Department of Social and Health Services, and works at the Walmart Distribution Center in Grandview (42 miles southeast of Yakima) three days a week. 

One of his proudest accomplishments was forming the CWU chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals For America (ALPFA) in 2018. He has served as the club president since its inception and plans to stay involved with the organization. That experience has helped him develop a broad network of professional contacts at major corporations like Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and Dell — some who have sent representatives to Ellensburg to meet with students.

“It’s amazing what this club can do for people,” said Gonzales, who hosted a committee from Boeing on campus last fall. “You make so many important connections with professionals who are committed to helping you succeed. It’s very empowering to be a part of, and it’s going to help others at CWU long after I’m gone.”

Gonzales stressed that ALPFA members are not exclusively Latinos — around 70 percent — and anyone who wants to join is welcome. The 40-year-old organization has more than 150 student chapters nationwide and stages regular events around the state.

“We’re a very diverse group,” he said. “This club is here to help everyone.”


Eyes on the future

All of Gonzales’ hard work at CWU is already paying off. He was presented with the Dean’s Award from the College of Business and he is looking forward to a full-time position at the Moss Adams accounting firm in Yakima this fall.

He understands those plans could change due to the economic situation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, but he remains hopeful that everything will proceed as planned.

“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so I have to be flexible,” he said. “As we have seen this spring, anything can happen. People say this recession could be worse than 2008, but we won’t know until we get there. I’m just trying to stay positive.”

As a student leader, Gonzales recognizes how important it is for him to remain upbeat. The ALPFA club members and other students he mentors need to continue believing the current situation will eventually improve.

“I know there are a lot of people depending on me,” he said, “and seeing others succeed is what keeps me pushing forward. They remind me why I do what I do every day.”

After putting his heart and soul into his education the past five years, Gonzales will leave CWU this weekend with a tremendous sense of pride in all that he has accomplished — for himself, his classmates, and the university.

At the same time, he laments that he won’t be able to attend a traditional graduation ceremony. After overcoming so much adversity in his young life, he was looking forward to putting an official stamp on his college career.

“It’s hard to think about because I could almost see the finish line when all of this happened,” Gonzales said. “Not having a ceremony definitely hurts, but I mostly feel bad for my parents and grandparents. They’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time.” 

Though he may be feeling a sense of loss right now, Gonzales continues to look forward to a prosperous future. He also can’t wait to pass along his well-earned wisdom to his 2-year-old daughter, Aamilah. 

“I’m excited to see what my daughter will become when she grows up,” he said. “I worked hard all my life for a better future, and now she will benefit from it. This college journey began because of the promise I made to my uncle on his death bed, and now my daughter’s future will be brighter because of it.”
 

• Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, david.leder@cwu.edu.

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