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Ashley Walsey photographed before graduation in the hallways of the Yakama National Tribal School in Toppenish, Wash. Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Wolsey will be attending WSU this fall to study zoology. (MASON TRINCA/Yakima Herald-Republic)

Graduating this week from Yakama Nation Tribal School, Ashley Walsey is closing in on the goal she set for herself long ago — to study zoology at Washington State University.

“It’s been my dream since I was 7,” she said. “I’ve always loved animals a lot; my dad tells me that when I was little, the very first thing I wanted was a ferret.”

This fall, the 18-year-old animal lover from White Swan is headed to WSU and she’s simultaneously thrilled about her next adventure and worried about how much she’ll miss her little sister and her friends.

But, she’s also seen how life on the reservation can derail other young people from their dreams and she’s determined to avoid those traps by heading off to school despite the risk of homesickness.

“My dad wants me to come home and visit a lot but my auntie says that once I move to WSU, I shouldn’t come home for awhile,” Walsey said.

As the first of her siblings and friends to move away for college, Walsey knows she needs to stay motivated to make her dreams a reality, and luckily, she’s already had some practice. She kept her plans in mind through a difficult childhood, after her mom left the family and she and her three older siblings moved around a lot with their dad.

It wasn’t easy, but it brought them closer.

“My sister and brothers were always looking out for me,” Walsey said. “My dad, all the family, they’ve been supportive of college, but really I had the motivation.”

She’s also encouraging them, too, including cashing in on a long-standing bet with her brother that if she goes to college, he would go back to school as well.

It’s a touch of the competitive spirit that made her a three-sport athlete for the Tribal School, competing in basketball, volleyball and track, as well as dancing in the powwows she travels to with her family.

Tribal School Principal Relyn Strom said Walsey works hard at everything she puts her mind to.

“She’s one of our strongest students academically, but she’s also a three-sport athlete and she’s very active in traditional cultural activities, like dancing and learning the Yakama language,” Strom said.

Walsey also credits her experience at the Tribal School and some of the friends she made there with helping her stay on track to college.

In eighth grade, before she transferred, she hit a rough patch and just really didn’t feel like herself. She was failing classes and hiding her grades from her dad. But when he found out, Walsey said he reminded her that she was smarter than that and suggested switching schools away from some friends who might have been a bad influence.

“I had to go to summer school to get my grades up, but it was easy,” Walsey said. “When I came here, I started getting that motivation again.”

As for what kind of career she envisions for herself, Walsey is still open-minded. Maybe she’ll be a veterinarian or a zoologist who travels the world, or come home and work for the Yakama Nation’s wildlife program.