WSU graduate donates first paycheck to scholarship program that helped him through college

A first generation college student and 2020 Washington State University graduate is saying thank you to a state scholarship foundation by donating his first paycheck from his new career job.

Neftali Garcia is a member of the 2020 graduating class. What he set out to do four years ago was finally coming to fruition this spring but not how he imagined. The global COVID-19 pandemic caused several changes to his final semester in school that he says was a shock to everyone in the WSU community. Before spring break Neftali considered things relatively normal – classes were still face to face, professors were teaching plans as expected and there were only rumors of possible changes. Then everyone in the university system received an email from WSU President Kirk Shulz about switching to online courses.

“I remember it was my first class on Friday and I remember even our professor was shocked,” Neftali said, “We were like, well, what does this mean for all of us? What does this mean for graduation? Does this mean we don’t get to walk?”

After the president’s email all of the rumors came true. Graduation was moved online with special sentiments toward the class of 2020 and university faculty members made speeches over video conferences. A traditional graduation ceremony is currently planned for August but Neftali isn’t focusing on the ‘what if’ of it all.

“I set my goal to go to WSU and graduate and get my degree, and here I am today,” he said.

Instead of a negative look at everything that went wrong in the matter of months, Neftali is looking back throughout his college career at all the good that has occurred. He is the first in his family to graduate from college and left Pullman with the job he was striving for thanks in part to the Washington Apple Education Foundation. WAEF is the charity of the tree fruit industry. The foundation helps children of tree fruit industry workers attend college and get career training. Neftali’s mother and father have worked in the tree fruit industry as long as he can remember. He says he would go with his parents to the fields to see what they do and grew to have a passion for the industry. His family lives in Basin City, a well known agricultural area near Connell in eastern Washington. Neftali says his parents have always helped him but he felt an obligation to finance his education on his own. As the oldest child of four in his family, Neftali recognized how much his parents were already providing and started working to save money for school expenses.

“Usually what I did every year is just work in the summer, save money and then use that money to pay my school utilities whether that’s rent or just books or everything,” he said.

Neftali relied on summers away from Pullman to fund himself through school. He not only needed finances for school, he needed to save for personal expenses. This is something many students learn: navigating professional goals, personal finances and the abundance of social experiences college has to offer. Neftali says he was lucky enough to get opportunities during his junior and senior year thanks to friends telling him about the Washington Apple Education Foundation.

“They were like, worst case scenario you only get maybe $1,000,” Neftali said, “So I went and applied and got a scholarship.”

Getting that scholarship his junior year and then an even bigger scholarship his senior year allowed Neftali to take his summer savings and apply the money toward personal finances without worrying about the cost of school. On an economic spectrum, WAEF completely altered how Neftali could spend and save, but this wasn’t the only impact. Due to less time spent on summer jobs, Neftali was available for internship opportunities. WAEF also helped make that happen.

“This is more than money. You know, we’re their partners,” Jennifer Witherbee, the Executive Director of the Washington Apple Education Foundation said, “We want to be able to see them all the way through to graduation and we want to help them make sure that when they graduate, they’re ready to land that first career job.”

Witherbee and WAEF assist scholarship recipients through job training and networking. Volunteers, past scholarship recipients and donors help students learn more about the field they want to work in. WAEF connects students to those professionals to give them a day-to-day look inside the industry they are interested in, whether that be the tree fruit industry or something else.

“Last year we even sent a student who wanted to be a pilot out to meet with one of the industry members that had helicopters that they used for their work,” Witherbee said, “He got to spend time with the pilot learning about what does. So we do try to encourage our students to participate in those opportunities and we try to figure out how to meet our students’ needs based on what their passions and interests are.”

For Neftali that passion was the tree fruit industry because of his family ties. He attended a workshop with WAEF to learn more and was encouraged to attend job fairs. Neftali says that is one of the biggest lessons he learned through the scholarship program and that is how he landed an internship with Zirkle Fruit Company in Pasco. Many 2020 graduates are having a hard time finding jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many hiring freezes in effect. Neftali had his internship that turned into a full-time position after he graduated. Through a string of events, Neftali recognizes how the pieces fell together thanks to his hard work in school and support from WAEF. To thank the organization, he wanted to do something big.

An email was sent to WAEF recipients and donors. The letter included stories and background information on students struggling to pay for school. WAEF has given more than $1,000,000 in scholarships over the past 25 years but they rely on donors within the fruit tree industry to make that happen. These stories made Neftali think about how he could make a difference.

“I was like, this is what I can do,” Neftali said, “I can like create a scholarship or donate and be part of the foundation and be able to help other people. I sometimes don’t have much to offer but I try quite a bit just to help other if I can.”

He reached out to Jennifer about his plan to donate his first paycheck from Zirkle Fruit Company back to WAEF to help another student.

“I was just quite overwhelmed with the gift he decided to make,” Witherbee said, “We have amazing students and we love them interacting with WAEF and coming back but when he reached out and said ‘I’ve been looking for a way to be part of the foundation after I graduated and a way I would be able to show my appreciation.’ I just was quite blown away from that. I get to be around people doing good things all the time, volunteering their time, giving their money to people that they don’t know, and just that he wanted to be able to celebrate his graduation and was willing to do that with this first paycheck was really pretty amazing.”

Neftali says there are many students just like him that struggle to make ends meet during school. 80 percent of WAEF recipients are first generation college students, just like Neftali, and there may be resources out there that they could be unaware of. WAEF attempts to fill in those gaps to best support those students, financially and professionally.

Neftali wants other students to have the chance to enjoy college and come out financially sound through scholarships. He says there are scholarships that no one takes advantage of so people should apply to any and all scholarships they see.

“I applied to WAEF of course, a great organization with great people,” Neftali said, “You meet great mentors and great people just in general, and they’re able to help you even if you don’t get a scholarship. There’s a lot of resources they have that can help you get through college and just great people who are willing to teach you a lot of things about the industry and just anything in general that you wish to learn.”

Neftali is now looking forward to his August commencement and working in the industry his planned to be in. He isn’t focused on a foiled few months of school but instead has looked ahead to how he can help lead another student to the graduation stage.

“Just being able to help somebody else really makes me have that feel good feeling, just giving back to something that was there for me this whole time,” he said.