Leaping Toward Education

High school dropout seeks to make UNLV a better school— one jump at a time


Karla Washington has led an extreme kind of life. Back in her high school years, the now-41-year-old Las Vegas resident admits the extreme factor wasn’t always of the positive variety.

When Washington attended Channel Island High School in Oxnard, Calif., she graduated with grade point average of 1.46. That was after she spent an entire semester skipping class and then dropping out, before working a series of odd jobs that didn’t lead anywhere.

Fast forward 22 years and Washington has spun that “extreme” energy into something positive. Now a junior in college, she has a 3.76 GPA at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. And last month, she celebrated being elected student senator by jumping 108 stories off the Stratosphere’s Sky Jump. That actually might have been a little too extreme for the full-time mother and student.

“I will never do that again!” she laughs (and screams) during an interview a few days after the jump. “I will never, ever do that again.”

Washington was part of a ticket with fellow students Mike Rubin and Geoffrey Moran. Their campaign slogan was, “We’ll go to the extreme.” The two men jumped prior to the election in an effort to get votes, while Washington said she would jump after the election if they won. They won.

 “We went to the extreme, and that’s what we’re looking to do for the hotel college for this whole year,” she says.

Her goal is to help better bridge the college with the resorts and amenities of Las Vegas. “I believe Las Vegas is our walking laboratory,” she says, adding that the school is positioned to send its graduates off to some of the best resorts in the world—just moments away from the UNLV campus. “We are steps away from the Strip, and we have industry leaders that come in all the time that are recruiting,” she says. 

When she graduates in 2012 with a major in meetings and events and a minor in leadership and civic engagement, Washington plans to get a job in human resources and employee development.

It’s a big change from the years she spent as a wedding and events coordinator, a print shop employee and a truck driver, prior to going back to school. She attributes her turnaround to the birth of her daughter, Kennedy, four years ago.

“A light switch went on and I was like, ‘You’ve got to do something with yourself,’” she says.

She plans for her daughter to go to school, get good grades and go on to college. But that wasn’t all. “I knew that if she was anything like me she was going to have my attitude and she was going to have my mouth,” Washington says. Because of that, she believed it was time to lead by example. Unless she went to college, Washington knew her daughter would one day challenge her for the choices she made. 

So she went back to school, starting with community college in Santa Monica, Calif., and then transferring to UNLV, where she’s not only a student senator, she’s also a site development chairwoman for Students Organizing Diversity Activities.

Washington says everything she does now is for her daughter. Kennedy gets to go with her to campus every day, where she attends day care.

“It’s been like a dream, and I don’t want to wake up,” she says.

As a student senator, Washington hopes to make changes on campus so that when Kennedy and her generation enroll in college it will be an even better place than it is today.

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