Boise native finds college success amid constant disruptions

When Winston Gee crossed the aisle in the spring of 2021, not only did it signify a major turning point in his life, it was a victory that showed the resilience of his graduating class.

The Boise High graduate and his college classmates endured multiple campus evacuations over the years due to a fire, mudslide, damaged water supply and the pandemic before graduating from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“They’ve overcome unbelievable challenges and catastrophic events to emerge stronger than ever,” said Westmont President Gayle Beebe in a news release.

Gee knew from his freshman year that his college experience would be unlike any other. In December 2017, students on campus were forced to evacuate due to the ravaging Thomas Fire, which burned almost 300,000 acres. Conveniently, the evacuation canceled finals that semester and he was able to return home to Boise for winter break.

Winston Gee, courtesy of Westmont College

But it wasn’t a welcome return for students the following year. In the spring of 2018, the damage from the multiple wildfires in California caused mudslides that contaminated the water supply for many areas, including Westmont. With the poor water quality, the campus was once again forced to evacuate. This time, Gee stayed with friends in Santa Barbara.

“I was just grateful that I was supported during that time,” Gee said.

Gee’s sophomore year was able to commence without forced evacuations, but that luck ran out in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 shut down schools nationwide. Gee spent the end of his junior year taking classes remotely. He was on a spring break trip with classmates when they found out that they would not be able to return to campus again.

“At that point, it was just normal for us,” Gee said with a laugh. “I got used to it. We just got to roll with what comes next. I guess I don’t exactly know what a normal year is like any more.”

For the 2020-2021 school year, students were able to return to campus, but were taking classes online or outside in tents.

While Gee may have missed out on college life a few times, he said he is very grateful for the friendships he’s made over the years.

“It’s a shared experience we’ll always have together,” he said.

Gee said his favorite memory from college was summer research in 2019. He was a part of a computational chemistry team using computers to monitor different chemical reactions. Gee said being a part of that close community for the summer was an experience he’ll never forget. Getting more of those opportunities to be part of a social group is something Gee said he thinks he missed due to the evacuations of Westmont.

“If there’s one thing I think I missed out on is the opportunity to connect with more people,” he said. “But even through the disruptions, I’m still grateful for the education that I got and the friends that I’ve made.”

What’s next

Heading into college, Gee said he didn’t really know what he wanted to do outside of liking both science and math. He decided to go to Westmont after his visit to the campus, despite not wanting to go to his mother’s alma mater at first.

“I just kept taking classes in both, hoping I would pick one,” Gee said.

With the consistent stops to classes in his four years at Westmont, Gee said he struggled to keep himself motivated at times and also had issues with scheduling classes to fulfill both of his majors. He said his classmates were crucial in getting him to the finish line.

Gee graduated from Westmont in the spring with straight As through all four years of college and was named one of the awardees for the school’s First Senior Award, which honors students who complete their college career without a grade below a 90%. Five members of the 2021 graduating class received the honor.

Gee is planning on going to UCLA to work towards a Ph.D. in chemistry. He wants to focus on the computational and theoretical track of chemistry, allowing him to continue working in science and math.

“I never have to choose between the two,” he said, laughing.

About Nik Streng

Nik Streng graduated with his bachelors degree in creative writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in 2013 and graduated with his master’s in journalism from the University of Oregon. 

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