CWU’s ‘Vote For Change’ Initiative Gains National Recognition
This is the second time that Central Washington has been selected as a finalist for the NCAA Division II Award of Excellence.
This is the second time that Central Washington has been selected as a finalist for the NCAA Division II Award of Excellence.
Central Washington will receive a $500 award to use toward other SAAC initiatives or community engagement activities.
Central Washington will receive a $500 award to use toward other SAAC initiatives or community engagement activities.

Monday, January 11, 2021
by Kaho Akau, GNAC Media Relations Assistant

ELLENSBURG, Wash. – The Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s student-athletes continue to go above and beyond to make a difference on campus and in the community.

Exemplifying the NCAA Division II philosophy of community engagement and student-athlete leadership, Central Washington University is among 29 national finalists for the 2021 Award of Excellence.

The Wildcats were selected as one of six at-large finalists for the award, which recognizes Division II institutions and conferences for their efforts in putting on events that promote student-athletes giving back and serving as leaders in the community.

“This recognition is a true testament to the work of our student-athletes and administration in our quest for social justice,” said Tyler Unsicker, associate athletic director for external affairs. “This was driven by our student-athletes, who understand that they have a platform to invoke change. The fight is long from over and initiatives like this are just the beginning.”

Despite various local, state and federal restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Central Washington was able to collaborate and discuss ways to fight against racism and advocate for social justice and equality. Through their “Vote for Change” initiative, the Wildcats organized a department-wide social justice march and focused their efforts on anti-racism, voter education and voter registration.

“During this odd time in the world, it has become extremely difficult for anything to pass approval due to COVID-19 restrictions,” said Ethan Lapic, a sophomore on the Central Washington cross country and track and field teams and a community outreach representative for the Wildcats’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). “I have learned how difficult it is to achieve community engagement. Student-athletes support one another and get along just fine, but as with any other school, it’s sometimes difficult to connect with students from various sports since we all have limited free time while balancing school and practice.”

The limited free time and difficulty connecting student-athletes with each other would prove to be just a minor obstacle.

In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other African Americans in 2020, tensions began to rise across the nation. Central Washington athletics contributed to the fight against racism, police brutality and social injustice.

On Sept. 17, several members of the Central Washington football team recruited student-athletes from all 15 Wildcats’ sports teams to join them in a peaceful, socially-distanced and masked up social justice march from campus to the courthouse in downtown Ellensburg. The march was coordinated with government officials, Ellensburg police and campus safety officers in an effort to show unity and express a need for change.

“Much of the work stemmed from our students,” said Laura Dahlby Nicolai, assistant athletic director for compliance. “The effort of our students intensified to advocate and inform themselves and others. They wanted to take a visible stand and also work to increase knowledge.”

The social justice marches became somewhat of a hot topic in Ellensburg. While most people in the community were supportive of the Central Washington student-athletes’ efforts, others were not as inviting of the idea.

More than 200 protesters from the Central Washington community gathered at an intersection outside the courthouse. They waved signs and were peacefully protesting when they were met by a group of counter-protesters, some of whom Lapic said were using vulgar language and physically attempting to remove the peaceful demonstrators.

Some Ellensburg locals drove by and honked in support of the protest. Others played loud music, yelled at the protesters and even blew exhaust from their vehicles into the intersection. Still, the student-athletes, coaches and administration stayed in the downtown area for hours.

“Having members of the faculty and staff present displayed unity within the athletic department and we are grateful for their support,” Lapic said. “It was appreciated by all of the student-athletes who felt like they were finally being heard. I’m still processing and analyzing the various events from the last few years to piece together a coherent picture of what actions and events led to such a drastic outcome.”

Following the march, Ellensburg mayor Bruce Tabb and the Ellensburg City Council invited members of the Central Washington athletics community to take part in a focus group to create a more welcoming, safe and inclusive community.

Lapic, who is of part Japanese descent, was part of a group of 11 student-athletes who were given the opportunity to express their feelings and grievances during the virtual meeting. The student-athletes shared their stories about being people of color in Ellensburg, a predominantly white community. Lapic later wrote a statement on behalf of Central Washington athletics that summarized his thoughts on the meeting.

“They were the drivers of the march in downtown. Administration and coaches just helped get the word out and facilitate, which garnered the attention we received from the mayor and city council,” Dahlby Nicolai said.

While the marches and protests brought awareness to the community, the Wildcats wanted to take the initiative further and be even more active.

The Central Washington SAAC hosted a voter education webinar to provide student-athletes with resources and tips to help them with the voting process. Student-athletes were able to ask questions and learn more about how to become educated voters to fulfill their civic duties.

Working closely with the administration, SAAC members also created a voter education website designed to promote civic engagement and prepare student-athletes for upcoming elections. The site was created to educate students on how to register to vote, how to cast a ballot and how to learn more about political candidates. The page included information for all 50 states to ensure that all student-athletes received the necessary information.

Lapic, along with other SAAC members, helped to gather information on presidential candidates as well as candidates running for office in Washington state. The information included the candidates’ party affiliations, contact information and links to their campaigns’ websites.

“I was only a small cog in creating the voting site and webinar,” Lapic said. “It all turned out fantastic and everyone who worked on it should be proud of how the finished product turned out. The role that Laura (Dahlby Nicolai) played cannot be overstated in these projects and in helping to create a happy and respectable community for student-athletes at Central Washington.”

Average American citizens, especially people of color, may be discouraged to get informed or become politically engaged. They may often feel as if their one vote will not make much of a difference to the country, let alone their states or local communities.

Lapic said that that could not be further from the truth. Every vote matters. Every vote counts.

“It’s important for everyone to be informed because greater participation allows for a better experience for all,” Lapic said. “Promoting community engagement allows for our democracy to work at its best.”