By AnneMarie Hunter


In August, Vanessa ‘Nessa’ Ankney began her first year as a Washington State University ROAR (Responsibility Opportunity Advocacy and Respect) student.

WSU ROAR is a two-year inclusive, post-secondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). An integrated, on-campus educational experience, ROAR empowers students to achieve their personal and professional goals and become self-determined, independent adults.

Nessa, a passionate, gifted artist, will graduate from the ROAR program in 2023 with an emphasis on fine arts. As part of her fall schedule, she is enrolled in Amy Petersilie Heile’s ENGL 100 (Introductory College Composition) course.

Recently, Nessa shared some insights about ROAR, her passion for art, and the future. Heile, a teaching associate professor in the Department of English, also offered some thoughts [in italics] about teaching and getting to know her extraordinary student.

Please share some details about your ROAR program.

To me, ROAR is part of my college education. We audit independent living classes and do career planning. We’re very busy and have a lot of homework. Mine takes me hours to do.

What do you like most about the program?

I like the ROAR teachers. They tell us what is happening. I have a bad memory and they are able to help me. They are very encouraging. I like the campus bus system. It was difficult at first, but I’m getting better at it.

When did you start creating art, and what was your inspiration?

I’m on the autism spectrum. I didn’t understand emotions until I was in the third grade. A wonderful person taught me emotions are colors. I finally understood what it meant to be happy or mad. I started to love art after that.

What are your favorite subjects and media?

I like to draw digitally. I usually draw anime. I watched InuYasha and I saw the eyes. I knew I had to draw them. I haven’t stopped.


What does drawing make you think and feel?

It makes me feel busy in a good way. I focus only on what I’m doing, and the world disappears. My senses shut down, which gives me a break.

Why is drawing important to you?

I think I’m good at it and I like it. I feel like I’m bringing my characters to life. They entertain me. I also like to make people happy with my drawings.

Do you have a mentor or teacher who inspired you?

I took four years of art in high school. It was the only class where I felt safe. There was usually no yelling, and it wasn’t crowded. The lights didn’t flicker, and my art teacher had a calm voice. She made me want to learn more about art.

Heile. When I first met Nessa, she introduced herself as an artist. Her passion for art has been evident in almost everything she’s done since then, whether is writing about the characters she’s created, doodling in the margins of her notes, or lending her considerable drawing skills to the other members of the class whenever we have an activity that requires sketching or illustration. Nessa’s vivid imagination and determination are some of her many strengths.


How has your family influenced you and your life?

My family has supported me since I was placed in their home at three days old. My brothers, sisters, cousins, and school community have also encouraged me. I will succeed because I have a lot of support.

Are you involved in any projects with fellow students?

I go to the Native American Student Center. We have many events. ROAR has many events, also.

Are you a member of a Native American group?

I’m an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and a member of the San Poil band. Chief Jim James, who flipped on the switch to run power at Grand Coulee Dam, is my great-great-grandfather.

Do you also hold a job?

I just started at The Daily Evergreen newspaper as a graphic artist.

You are a recipient of the Deborah T. Killinger and Suwyn ROAR Scholarships. How have these scholarships helped you in your education?

Without them, I wouldn’t be here. ROAR gets no state or federal funding, and I can’t get Stafford loans. School’s very expensive for families. I was very lucky, and I really appreciate the scholarship donors. I hope to make them proud.

What are your goals and dreams for the future?

I want to live on my own near my parents. I hope the town I live in has a good bus system. It would be nice to write and illustrate my own book.


What about your future as an artist?

I don’t know yet. While at WSU, I hope to learn more and get inspired. I’ve been drawing a lot and my latest drawing will be a t-shirt for the first ROAR Fall Festival.

What have been some of the greatest challenges in your life or education, and how have you overcome them?

People are a challenge to me because I still don’t understand emotions. My facial expressions don’t always match the moods. Communicating is difficult because my brain takes longer to process what is said by others. Most people walk off before I can answer. I’m working on that. My memory is also not so great. ‘What was that question, again?’

Heile. Even when something is challenging, Nessa embraces the challenge. She’s also willing to try new things even when the outcome is uncertain.

Nessa’s also explained one of the ways she keeps herself from becoming overwhelmed by the demands of being a college student is focusing on her art and thinking up new stories about the characters she’s created.


What are some of your great accomplishments or moments you are most proud of?

When I won my first drawing contest; when I graduated co-salutatorian at my high school; when I cooked my first tortilla; when I won my first game of Among Us as the Imposter; and when I got word that I was accepted to WSU ROAR.

Why do you consider being accepted into the ROAR Program one of your greatest accomplishments?

I was the first person with a disability to be a co-salutatorian at my high school. I want to show that we can go to college like everyone else. I want people to see us. WSU ROAR is college.

Meet some of the extraordinary ROAR students in this video.

If you are interested in making a contribution or supporting ROAR students, visit the WSU ROAR Scholarship Fund.

November is National Native American Heritage Month. This is a time to celebrate the diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native people, and to acknowledge their remarkable contributions and vast achievements.