Alumni of the Year 2022

Meet the Alumni of the Year 2022, honored for service and achievement that embody the spirit of their alma mater.



Wendy Fernandez '87 and '93

While the path to her current career as an immigration attorney has taken many twists, Wendy Hernandez says each step proved a necessary part of her journey. “In hindsight, I now can see that those were not times of detour but times of direction,” she explains.

Among those experiences were 16 years working for WWU, during which she completed her bachelor of social work while she and her husband, Sergio, added two children to their family. While working part-time as a nurse in the Student Health Center, Wendy partnered with residential deans and student administration to create the Student Assistance Center to help rather than discipline students with substance abuse issues. “The work was deeply rewarding,” she says.

After completing her master of social work degree at WWU in 1993, Wendy served as director of the university’s Counseling Center. Then, in 2000, she went to law school at Gonzaga University.

These experiences, plus her childhood on an island reservation in Alaska, have shaped Wendy’s desire to practice immigration law. “My approach to my work is guided by a core belief that God wants all people to be treated equally,” she says. “Every day I draw upon the wisdom of those wise religion, English, sociology, social work, and psychology professors who prepared me to work with people from around the world.”

Meanwhile, Wendy’s children have grown up, attended WWU, married, and had children of their own. Now she and Sergio are anticipating new experiences with their WWU legacy. “Walla

Walla University was the center of our lives for so many years,” Wendy says. “We’re looking forward to being a part of our grandchildren’s experience at WWU.”

Aman Grant '97

Academics didn’t come easily to Aman J. Grant when he arrived at Walla Walla University to pursue a major in theology. “The classroom was a painful place since I struggled to retain information from the lectures. I was slow to learn compared to my peers,” he remembers. “I fought the call to be a preacher because I didn’t know how I was going to get through school.”

Aman applied the tenacity he had learned in athletics to his studies, and soon the writing lab was a second home. He recalls the support of deans, professors, and spiritual leaders on campus. In particular, he remembers the hours Wendy Hernandez spent counseling him.

“The story of a dreamer named Joseph motivated me to prioritize my mental [and] emotional health,” Aman says. “I am living my dreams because I chased them as they developed here at Walla Walla University.”

Those dreams ultimately led Aman to complete his master of divinity degree and join the U.S. Navy, where he serves as the command naval chaplain in San Diego and consultant for spiritual resiliency for the commanding officer of Navy Region Southwest.

Aman continues to use the lessons of healing, tenacity, and leadership that began at WWU in his work helping the Navy face challenges among its members. He is also committed to raising his young son, Jo Jo, in a spiritually and emotionally healthy home.

To today’s students, Aman’s guidance is clear: “Start understanding and submitting to the person and power of the Holy Spirit now. Once you have that piece in place, then you can start chasing God’s dream for your life early.”

Melissa Sydney '12

The dream of an orphan girl in Bolivia was realized in her granddaughter, Mellissa (Leaf ) Sydney, when Mellissa enrolled at Walla Walla University. “Being the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree came with its own unique challenges,” Mellissa explains. “At times, it felt like I had to make big decisions and face challenges alone, without a family member who knew how it all worked to give advice.”

Mellissa, who went by Frances during her college years, dove into those challenges and made the most of her time at WWU. “WWU was a place that allowed for the open expression of differing viewpoints, which in turn led to well-rounded discussions and learning from each other’s life experiences,” she says. That climate, combined with opportunities to volunteer and serve others, prepared Mellissa for her career in medicine.

After graduating from WWU and earning her master’s degree at Heritage University, Mellissa headed to medical school at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences and then became chief resident in her residency program in Detroit, Michigan.

With her residency recently complete, Mellissa and her husband, Ron, are returning to the Northwest, where Mellissa will be serving as an emergency room doctor. Her goals include making deeper connections and showing God’s love to those around her while continuing to work with underserved communities and mentoring under-represented minority students.

Mellissa’s goal is as clear today as when she came to WWU. “For me, success is a mindset of continually persevering through failure after failure while having the wisdom to evolve, be present, and find joy throughout the journey toward your most deeply valued goals,” she says.

David Vixie '77 and '83

Walla Walla roots run deep for David. The child of two WWU alumni, he knew by seventh grade his future was in teaching. “I was an official 13-year-old idealist, and I wondered how this would be different if I were the teacher,” he remembers. “I imagined not a classroom as was common then but learning environments as they could be, and I stepped into my career believing it was possible to make them real.”

That belief led David to WWU for a degree in elementary education with minors in religion, physical education, and biology, which he believed would be valuable when he moved into his own classroom. “It was here that I first had an instructor deliberately ask me to think and value those thoughts,” he says.

From WWU, David and his wife, Karen, moved to the Adventist school in Roseburg, Oregon. Together they created a classroom community, dubbed “Vixie Village,” the first of many creative learning environments David brought to students across the West Coast. David expanded those skills by returning to WWU for a master’s in curriculum development.

Today, you’ll likely find David and his students outside, where they might be learning history while traveling in a covered wagon or putting to sea on the deck of a 19th-century sailing ship. Designing and constructing a fence makes trigonometry tangible, and history comes alive while standing in an immigration line.

Though David has received countless awards during his career, his focus remains on what he can do to serve students and help them flourish. “My strength comes from God,” he says, “and strength is for service, not for status.”