The Determined Graduate

Billy Agbavon’s Evergreen Tacoma Journey

By Sandra Kaiser

The voice crackles over the phone from a time zone 11 hours ahead, a West-African French accent softening the consonants coming from thousands of miles away.

Billy Agbavon

Army Corporal Billy Agbavon received his bachelor's degree from The Evergreen State College during a May 28, 2013 graduation ceremony at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Photo by Staff Sergeant Scott Tynes, 102nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

It’s early morning on the Evergreen campus in Olympia, but it’s evening in Afghanistan, where U.S. Army Corporal Billy Agbavon ’13 is remembering his graduation.

Agbavon had planned to be with his Evergreen Tacoma classmates at graduation this June, but was deployed to Afghanistan in February. So, on May 28, wearing Army desert camouflage under his graduation gown, Agbavon accepted his Evergreen diploma in a ceremony at Kandahar Airfield along with 54 other American service members and civilians receiving degrees from various universities and colleges.

“It felt very good to finish my bachelor’s degree,” he recalled a few months later. “It was very difficult, but it was important to get it done professionally and for my family.”

Agbavon’s Evergreen Tacoma education and his military service are the latest points in a lifelong trajectory. From Togo, the small West African nation of his birth, to the East Coast and permanent U.S. residency, to studying at Evergreen Tacoma, enlisting in the military and deciding to become an American citizen, Agbavon has pursued the goal of an education that will help him work in international human rights or social justice.

“I believe in persuasion rather than aggression,” said Agbavon. “I have learned not to judge or hold people responsible for what others have done simply because they are from a different race or ethnic group.” Diversity is to be celebrated, he said, noting the student population at Evergreen Tacoma is possibly the most diverse in Washington state.

Growing up in Togo in the 1980s and ‘90s, Agbavon said he saw enough violence to last a lifetime. Convulsed by ethnic violence and dominated by the ruling Gnassingbé family, Togo’s history since 1960 as an independent country has been marked by civil war and poverty.

According to the 2012 U.S. State Department’s human rights country report, Togo’s government and security forces are still noted for use of “excessive force, official corruption and impunity, and government control of the press through beatings and harassment of journalists and sometimes outright censorship.” The World Bank’s global 2012 index of gross national income puts Togo’s per capita income at $500, compared to $50,120 per capita in the U.S.

Raised by a single mother, Agbavon vowed that poverty would not stop him from getting a college education, despite a lack of political connections.

“Billy has set a goal to attend graduate school in international relations. Given his multilingual skills and his early years in Africa, the U.S., and now Afghanistan, I am sure he will bring a uinque, sophisticated, and important perspective to this field.”

Evergreen Tacoma faculty member Peter Bacho

“If my fellow students in Togo had parents who worked in the government or belonged to the right political party, they attended college without economic difficulties,” he said. “I struggled.”

Agbavon made his way to the U.S. in 2003, living at first on the East Coast and moving to Tacoma in 2005.

“In 2010, I made a momentous decision and joined the Army, in order to receive a regular paycheck, become a citizen and use the GI Bill to further my education,” said Agbavon. “My dream is to study for my career without falling into debt.”

Evergreen Tacoma faculty member Peter Bacho was an advisor to Agbavon and led his last seminar, “Power Players,” which examined how colonial, post-colonial and neocolonial structures affect access to wealth and resources around the world.

“He was a wonderful student—intelligent and engaged,” remembered Bacho. “Billy has set a goal to attend graduate school in international relations. Given his multilingual skills and his early years in Africa, the U.S., and now Afghanistan, I am sure he will bring a unique, sophisticated, and important perspective to this field.”

Agbavon’s Evergreen Tacoma classmates missed him at their ceremony this summer, and have gone a long way to maintain the connection. “His fellow seminar members thought very highly of him,” said Bacho. “In fact, they put together care packages after he was deployed to let him know that he was still part of the Evergreen family.”

“We were together in class for two-and-a-half years, and we didn’t want him to think we had forgotten him,” said Washington State Patrol Lieutenant Monica Alexander ’13. “Billy is someone with tremendous depth of character, someone who would quietly remind us in seminar to be grateful for our opportunities to get an education.”

Agbavon’s Afghanistan tour ends in December 2013. He looks forward to being reunited with his wife and year-old daughter and continuing his education.

In a thank-you email to Alexander for the last care package, which included CDs, candy and toiletries, he wrote, “Please thank all the students who signed the card and put the package together. Also, tell them they shouldn’t be discouraged about attending college. If someone like me, who comes from one of the poorest countries in the world, can attend Evergreen Tacoma and get a bachelor’s degree, so can they.”