Washougal High student body president called ‘right leader at right time’

Senior Ethan Mills, led peers through COVID-19 pandemic

Kyla Ritchey was a bit surprised when Ethan Mills expressed an interest in running for Washougal High School’s Associated Student Body (ASB) president position in February 2020.

“I had never had him in my ASB program,” Ritchey, the school’s ASB adviser, said. “He had done it in middle school, but he was never able to fit into his schedule (in high school). He came to me, and I was a little apprehensive at first; I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ But he won, and a majority of the students voted for him, so obviously they knew him better than I did.”

Indeed, Mills proved to be the right leader at the right time. The Washougal High senior has excelled in his role as the school’s ASB president and exceeded all expectations during the significantly trying 2020-21 school year, Washougal High Principal Sheree Clark said.

“It’s important for me to let the community and his class know what an incredible leader (Mills) has been through this,” Clark said. “He has really stepped up to some specific challenges, and he has done it with grace. He has not swayed from his value system, and he’s worked really hard to partner with the administration team. His leadership is far beyond his actual age. I’m incredibly proud of him.”

Mills said he wanted to be able to help his classmates, but had hoped he could serve as student body president during a more “normal” school year. Instead, he was elected just a few weeks after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve honestly tried to keep everything running smoothly and make ends meet. I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect for everyone, and it definitely wasn’t. But I tried to push the students a little further and get them to the finish line,” Mills said. “Everyone in the district has shown a lot of resilience — almost too much resilience. I think we found our limits. But we made it. I don’t know if it was good or bad, but we made it.”

In his role, Mills focused on finding ways to increase student participation, which he admitted was “a big zero” before students returned for full-time in-person learning in April, and keep himself and his peers motivated.

None of it was easy, but he found a way to persevere.

“It’s pretty much been a year that we’ve had to keep this resilience level at an all-time high in order to keep pushing and keep going. It was definitely hard,” Mills said. “I even looked at myself a couple times and I’d be like, ‘OK, take a step back, relax and just keep pushing forward.’ You just have to focus on yourself and find ways to make yourself happy and keep the gears turning. For me, I spent a lot of time during quarantine working out. You have to focus on yourself before reaching out to help other people.”

When Ritchey started her maternity leave early due to a medical issue, Mills faced another challenge: leading the student body without an adviser.

“He was working hard to make sure that things were still getting done even though I wasn’t there to remind him that something was coming up or something needed to get done,” Ritchey said. “Our substitute was great; I love her. But she hasn’t had experience with ASB, so she didn’t know what to do with them. So, it was Ethan having to take on the role of being a president, but also some of the adviser stuff that I normally would do.”

Mills also worked diligently to maintain communication between staff members and students around the school’s COVID-19 protocols.

Sometimes, students expressed an interest in holding an event of their own because “they weren’t happy with the events that we were planning because they’d have to follow all of the COVID regulations,” according to Ritchey.

“Ethan would do a great job of talking to both parties involved and asking, ‘Where’s the line of communication being broken? How can we meet halfway and make this a good experience for both parties involved?'” she said.

“That’s hard to do as a teenager when your friends are like, ‘We don’t want to have an event where we’re wearing masks and having to distance,'” Ritchey said. “He’s like, ‘I get it. I don’t want to do it either. But if we don’t do it, then there’s people left out because they won’t go to the non-school-sanctioned function. So how can we make it so both parties involved are getting some of their needs met?’ That’s hard, and he did a great job of doing that.”

Mills said he has never seen himself as a traditional leader, but knows others might see him that way.

“I definitely see myself as determined, so if I want to do something, that’s the way I have to do it,” said Mills, who also is a member of his school’s National Honor Society club, band, and cross country and track and field teams. “I’m not necessarily an optimist, either. I’m a realist. I also definitely have to consider the views of all of the students, and even the parents. I kind of predict what peoples’ reactions will be to the things that we do and the challenges we face and the solutions that we provide to those challenges. It’s a lot of thinking ahead, being real and thinking, ‘What do I really think will happen here?'”

After graduating from Washougal High this week, Mills plans to attend Washington State University, where he will major in computer science and participate in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, which will prepare him for a tour of duty with the United States Navy.

“Originally, I was just planning on going to college until last year when a recruiter reached out to me,” Mills said. “I knew I wanted to go to college and not straight-up enlist. I think the ROTC program offers a lot of attributes that I look at in myself — leadership, determination, motivation, resilience. I think it will really build my character and (help me) improve myself, as well as offer great opportunities to travel around the world and serve my country.”

Mills will graduate with the rest of his Washougal High School class of 2021 at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 12, at Fishback Stadium. The event will be livestreamed and available for viewing at youtube.com/watch?v=6tNGfRvAHQY.