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Originally published June 11, 2010 at 9:29 PM | Page modified June 11, 2010 at 9:34 PM

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With degree, King County Metro bus driver sees new road ahead

King County Metro bus driver Erika Washington, 37, will be the first person in her family to graduate college when she receives her diploma Sunday from Seattle University.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Erika Washington is used to being insulted when she works.

But the King County Metro bus driver doesn't get angry.

"I don't know what's going on in people's lives," she said. "I don't know if they lost their job that day or if someone in their lives passed away, or if they were abused. Whatever happened, that's what they're releasing on me."

She has learned to consider different backgrounds, a key part of becoming a social worker — which is her goal.

Washington, 37, will graduate Sunday from Seattle University with a bachelor's degree in social work, becoming the first person in her family to earn a degree. Among those watching her graduate will be her brother, Kevin Washington, an airman who returned from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan just in time for the ceremony.

Washington reached her goal by working as a bus driver the past three years to pay for her education. But before she could celebrate, she had to work her last 10-hour shift of the school year Friday.

Her first stop driving the No. 48 would be one of many from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Beginning at Loyal Heights and driving toward the Central District, she picked up all races, classes and ages. They included businessmen, youngsters and people with disabilities.

Washington's passengers have different cultures, pasts and beliefs, but for a while each day they share a ride on her bus.

"When two worlds meet, it's quiet," Washington said. "They don't interact. That's the interaction — there is none."

Every week for the past three years, Washington has spent 40 hours driving through Seattle. In that time, she has seen the reality of concepts she has read about in her courses — classism, racism, sexism. She's overheard conversations about who got beat up, who was in the streets and why somebody was dropping out of school.

It made her think about what she could do to help, and in her third year of college she focused on social work.

The basic question

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Washington remembers one of her first social-work classes. A professor asked, "What is a social worker?" Then wrote in big letters on the white board: "Social workers help people."

Washington has kept that message in mind.

"There is dignity in every person, whether they're alcoholics or begging for money on the streets," Washington said. "Something happened to get them to that point. Social workers can help intervene before they get to that point, or bring them back."

Though not quite yet a graduate, Washington already seems to be practicing her profession.

She said she frequently sees young adults disrespecting themselves or those around them, speaking poorly to their parents or cussing at their boyfriends or girlfriends. When she has the chance, she tells them that their behavior is not OK.

"I think all of us drivers are social workers in some way," Washington said.

At the university, professors have noticed her commitment to helping others.

"She has a strong but calm sense of deep integrity," said Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, an assistant professor of theological ethics at Seattle U. "I've never seen someone so able to take ideas and principles learned in class and use them the next day."

A new direction

The daughter of a military man, Washington grew up an "Army brat," moving from military base to military base throughout Germany and the United States. After high school, she started working as a buyer for Tower Records in San Francisco. She later transferred to Seattle and started working for Sony BMG.

Washington loves music and thought that would be her career. Things changed, though, as more people started buying music online.

"A lot of people lost their jobs, and I was one of them," she said.

Washington said she was depressed, but now she sees it as a blessing.

"I believe everything happens for a reason," she said. "Now I'm helping people change their lives, and I don't think you could find anything more meaningful than that."

Still, the transition has been a challenge.

Staying up late working and rising early to go to school, Washington had to get used to missing sleep. And in the past eight months, she's started turning off the news.

With her brother serving in Afghanistan with the Air Force, every time she heard or read about American casualties in Afghanistan, she wondered if it could be him. So she started changing the channel whenever a news anchor mentioned the war.

Her mother lived fearing the sound of the doorbell, hoping a chaplain wouldn't be at her door holding an American flag.

But it never happened, and the family will be together Sunday to celebrate its first college graduate.

At 4 p.m. Friday, Washington still had nine hours left in her shift — plenty of time to think. She said her mind likely would wander to graduation, to summer plans or to finally being able to sleep in.

And she probably would think about the people stepping onto her bus and how she could help them.

Because in the end, that's what a social worker is — someone who helps.

Carly Flandro: 206-464-2108 or cflandro@seattletimes.com

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