Heritage University: Bringing elite education to the most disadvantaged

Heritage University is surrounded by orchards and cropland in eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley. Many students are the first in their family to go to college. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary The New Face of College, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Since 1982 Heritage University, in Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, has made it its mission to educate some of the poorest, most isolated students in the country.

Down In the Valley

Three hours southeast of Seattle, across the Cascade mountain range, along the banks of the Yakima River, in the heart of some the richest agricultural land in the nation, lies the Yakima Valley, home to the Yakama Indian Reservation and Heritage University.

The first word that comes to mind when you cross Rattlesnake Ridge and drop into the Valley is beauty: stunning, jaw-dropping, silencing beauty. In early spring, when I drove into the Valley, the cherry orchards were in full bloom and white petals tumbled across the road in front of my car tires. The grape vines were leafing, hops plants were just beginning to climb their trellises, and acres of green mint were sprouting up. Snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance.

The second word that comes to mind is poverty.

“We call it ‘poverty with a view,'” says Heritage University’s Michael Moore. “Not too far removed from the Grapes of Wrath.”

Moore is the vice president for advancement at Heritage – a fancy title that means, essentially, the school’s head fundraiser and chief relationship-builder. When I was planning my trip to Heritage I asked him for an interview, and he told me he’d prefer to take me on a driving tour, to give me a better sense of what Heritage was and who it served. So we get into his truck and drive along two lane highways, and dirt roads, past the tiny towns and homesteads of the Valley.

We pull up in front of a trailer squatting on a low rise of land. There are rusted cars in the front yard. The screen door is hanging off its hinges and one of the windows is boarded up.

“This [kind of housing] is where a lot of our students come from,” Moore says.

Some of Heritage’s students are tribal members of Yakama Nation, but most are the children of migrant farmworkers who’ve immigrated from Mexico’s Michoacán province to work the Valley’s crops. They’re poor: The average family ability to pay for higher education, as reported on FAFSA forms, is about $100 a year. And they’re mostly women: Heritage’s student body is almost 80% female. They’re not, Moore says, the population many people have in mind when they think “college student.”

“The students that we have have been told time and time again, ‘People like you don’t go to college,'” he says. “‘People like you are good with their hands,’ which means being a beautician, or going back to work in the fields.”

That mentality is what Heritage University was founded to change.

The University of the Fields

Sister Kathleen Ross was happily ensconced in a position as Vice President of Fort Wright College, a Catholic school in Spokane, when Martha Yallup and Violet Rau knocked on her door.

Sister Kathleen Ross is the founding president of Heritage University. When the school started in 1982, most students were Native people from the Yakama Reservation. Now, most students are Latino. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Sister Kathleen Ross is the founding president of Heritage University. When the school started in 1982, most students were Native people from the Yakama Reservation. Now, most students are Latino. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Yallup and Rau had driven a couple of hours from the Yakama Reservation to ask Fort Wright for help. They wanted to start an outreach program to train local teachers and award them bachelor’s degrees. The nearest four-year college was about 50 miles from the reservation, too far to commute. And so Yallup and Rau asked Ross if Fort Wright could send professors to the Yakima Valley to lead classes.

Ross had enough on her plate, she says, but something about the visit felt “providential.” She had come up as a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, an order established by three nuns to found schools for girls living in the small farming towns along the Richelieu River in Canada. And so when the two women asked her to join them to help bring higher education to the people along another river, “That really touched me,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is a sign; this is something I’m supposed to do.'”

Together Ross, Yallup, and Rau set up an outreach program. Every Friday faculty from Fort Wright would fly or make the four-hour drive down to the reservation to lead classes, and a couple dozen preschool teachers from the reservation Head Start program started working part-time on their college degrees. This went on for a couple of years, until Fort Wright College started struggling financially. Its board decided to shutter the school — and with it, the Yakima outreach program.

“I had to come down to the Yakama reservation and tell them that the program was going to phase out and the theory was everyone was supposed to transfer to another institution,” Ross says. “Martha and Violet looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘We don’t have a four-year college to transfer to. That’s why we came to you.’ And that started a conversation that soon they evolved into, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just have to start our own college.'”

Ross’s immediate reaction? “You guys are crazy.”

“I said, ‘We don’t have the resources, personnel or monetary.’ Here we are in the middle of a rural area, orchards and hops fields all around us, very low income,” she says. “How could we ever [start a college]?”

But Yallup and Rau persisted. They recruited a board of area luminaries who pledged to support a local college, and looked into credentialing the school.

“About that time I thought to myself, ‘Oh dear God, this is really going to happen,'” Ross says.

Heritage University opened as an independent college in 1982, with Ross as President and a class of about 80 students, mostly Native women from the reservation. They met for classes in a four-room cottage that had been the janitor’s house on the grounds of a shuttered elementary school. When the weather was good, professors held forth under a towering sycamore tree outside the cottage.

Since then, Heritage has grown to almost 900 undergraduates, studying in a dozen single-story brick buildings and a cluster of trailers arrayed around a small grassy quad.

Back to School

Nathaniel Hill spent decades fishing for salmon on the Klickitat River before returning to college at Heritage University. He never considered going away to college. “My family’s been here for 10,000 years,” he says. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Nathaniel Hill spent decades fishing for salmon on the Klickitat River before returning to college at Heritage University. He never considered going away to college. “My family’s been here for 10,000 years,” he says. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

I met Nathaniel Hill at Heritage’s Native American resource center, in a small building next to some portable trailers that the college was using as classrooms. Hill, who is 54 years old, grew up here on the reservation as a member of Yakama Nation, and he never thought of himself as the kind of guy who would go to college.

“Growing up on the rez I was pretty wild,” he admits. “School wasn’t going to do nothing for me …. I thought [it] was a real waste of time.”

Mostly, what Hill wanted to do was fish for salmon on the Klickitat River.

“If you ever been outdoors and caught a fish, you know it’s the same thrill after the second or third one,” he says. “It’s just in the blood I guess.”

Hill dropped out of high school and got his GED, and fishing is what he did for the next 35 years, through marriage, having kids, and struggling every year to make ends meet. He was living free, he says. But his freedom came at a price.

“We didn’t make a lot of money fishing,” he says. “There were times when we’d be on the Klickitat River and we wouldn’t catch fish for a week or so….One of us would go down and snag eels. We’d catch them and slice them up and cook them over an open fire and have eel sandwiches and that would be breakfast, lunch and dinner right there. Once the fish would start moving again we’d start making some money and paying bills, doing what other Americans are doing but in a much more difficult way.”

But at age 50, Hill was laid off. Then he lost his oldest son. “I went through a little depression for a while,” he says. “I didn’t work and my wife was bringing in the bacon,” working as a cashier at a casino. Hill decided he needed to go back to school to “get a degree, gain some knowledge, some skills, learn a different way.”

Hill never considered going away for college. His life was on the Yakama Reservation.

“My family’s been here for 10,000 years,” he says with a laugh. “I ain’t going anywhere.”

So Heritage University was the only option for him. At first, it was a serious culture shock.

“I’ve been around [a] rough bunch, a lot of four-letter language, knuckles dragging on the ground. Doing hard physical labor, you gotta be tough,” Hill says. “So when I came [to Heritage], where everyone’s in a learning mode, being around all these educated people, talking to all these professors, I had to tone it down, learn to be civil.”

The academics were also a challenge. For a guy who had lived his life on the river, spending so many hours reading didn’t come naturally.

“It was tough,” Hill says. “I came in with hardly any skills, so I had to take all the prerequisites in every class there was. I had to keep the dictionary by my side, cause there was a lot of words I didn’t have a clue what they meant.”

Hill got tutoring through Heritage. He worked with a school program that supports first generation college students. Today he is in his third year at Heritage, studying business administration. He says he wants to run his own company some day – maybe get into the purchasing side of the fishing industry.

“I’m starting to think about me and the missus later on in life,” he says. “Having a steady income would be nice. I may have been free fishing but I built up zero retirement. Hopefully my education will allow me to be free again.”

A New Kind of Student

In many ways, Hill is the Heritage student of the past. Five years ago, the average student here was 35 years old and coming back to college to make a career change. Today, the typical Heritage student is about 27 — still older than the average American undergrad, but dropping fast.

“Each year we’re taking more 18-year-olds out of high school,” says Heritage University President John Bassett.

Bassett took over from Sister Kathleen Ross in 2010 after a career spent at a string of more prestigious, less geographically isolated universities. He says Ross took the school through its infancy and childhood; it’s his goal to move it into adulthood. And that means attracting a student body that’s more diverse: racially, economically, and in life circumstance.

“Diversity here would mean more younger students, being able to get some students that can pay a little bit of their tuition,” he says.

Changing the student body means changing the school, Bassett says. And that’s what he sees as the next frontier for Heritage.

“As we move from 35-year-olds to more younger students, you need space for students to do stuff,” he says. “It used to be that you came in, you took your two classes, and you went home to your three kids. If you’re 19, you come in, you have classes, and what are you going to do in between? Maybe you want to shoot hoops. Or go to a fitness center. So we feel there are certain amenities — without climbing walls or luxe dorms — that a normal-age student expects that we should provide.”

That’s an irony of Heritage today: The ultimate non-traditional school is looking for ways to become more traditional.

“I think we’ll always be different because of our population,” Bassett says. “But I think each year we have to be more like a typical college. We never will be one. But we need to be more like one each year.”

But “traditional” students from the Valley don’t necessarily look like “traditional” students other places.

The Mother-Scholar

Amber Ortiz-Diaz had her son, Jaiden, when she was 18. She says when she got pregnant, people told her she’d never go to college, but she’s now in her third year at Heritage, studying biomedical science. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Amber Ortiz-Diaz had her son, Jaiden, when she was 18. She says when she got pregnant, people told her she’d never go to college, but she’s now in her third year at Heritage, studying biomedical science. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

“Can you stand up? So this is a humerus …. What is your knee called, the bone? That’s the patella ….”

Amber Ortiz-Diaz studies for anatomy class by grabbing her three-year-old son Jaiden and massaging his arms and legs, listing out the scientific terms for each body part.

Ortiz-Diaz is a third-year student at Heritage University, studying biomedical science. I met up with her in the small, tidy three-bedroom trailer she and Jaiden share with her father and sister in a hamlet in the hills above Heritage.

Ortiz-Diaz grew up here in the Yakima Valley. She spent her summers picking apples and cherries with her parents, who migrated from Mexico to work in the fields.

“We’d wake up really early, get the ladder, go up there and pick the good apples, go tree by tree, and how many bins you fill is how much you get paid,” she says. “It came to the point where you’re working for a week and you’re so exhausted that when you would rest you’d close your eyes and see apples.”

Ortiz-Diaz’s parents didn’t have much education. Her father finished fifth grade. Her mother dropped out of high school.

“It’s hard to ask your parents for help growing up,” Ortiz-Diaz remembers. “Can you help me with my math homework? No, because I didn’t learn that. Can you help me with my English homework? Well, I don’t speak English, how can I help you with that?”

Many of Heritage University’s students are the children of farmworkers who tend the hops plants and the apple, cherry and pear trees in the Yakima Valley. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Many of Heritage University’s students are the children of farmworkers who tend the hops plants and the apple, cherry and pear trees in the Yakima Valley. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

But her parents always wanted Ortiz-Diaz to get a degree. They drilled it into her head like a mantra: “Que te vas andar matando en los files.” Do your homework, or you’ll kill yourself in the fields, working hard for just a little bit of money.

Ortiz-Diaz got good grades in high school. She says her teachers loved her. They had big plans for her — she was going to be one of those kids who got out, who made something of her life. And then, her junior year, Ortiz-Diaz got pregnant, and everything changed.

“People weren’t very nice,” she says. “The expectation is, ‘Oh, she got pregnant, she’s not going to do anything with her life.'”

But Ortiz-Diaz did finish high school. She actually wrote and published a book her senior year, a history of pregnancy from the perspective of a fetus. And she got a scholarship that paid for four years at a private college. She didn’t want to move away from home with a new baby, which is how she ended up at Heritage.

It hasn’t always been easy.

“There’s times where Jaiden is really sick but you have a midterm,” she says. “Or you can’t study because he doesn’t let you sleep. There’s thoughts that go through your head. Sometimes you think, ‘Is this even what I’m meant to be doing?’ Because it’s not logical for someone who has doctors as parents to think of college as an opportunity if it’s expected of them. From somebody who grew up first generation, you’re very lucky to even go.”

But she’s determined to finish college, and then go to medical school, and eventually become an ob-gyn.

“Looking at the long-term does stress me out sometimes,” she says. “But there’s a vision out there. Being the one caring for a pregnant woman with their child, all the way to birth, being the one taking care of her and her health, being the one saying you’re having a boy or girl …. [That’s] what I want to do. I would not mind doing [that] for the rest of my life.”

This summer, Ortiz-Diaz started an internship at Pacific Northwest University, a medical school that opened recently near Heritage. She’s got a mentor at the school who’s helping her get ready to apply to med school. When she’s finally done with her education, she says, she wants to buy a little house for her and Jaiden up in the hills above the Valley, and open her own practice, serving the kind of teenage mother she used to be.

“In this valley right now, there’s a lot of things that need to be changed,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to stay local, to feel like I’m making a difference…And to succeed and people to be like, ‘Oh, that’s Amber. Amber’s doing something.’ That’s just what I want to do.”

Serving the New Student

On a Tuesday afternoon, Heritage’s CAMP class is meeting in the school’s main academic hall. CAMP — or the College Assistance Migrant Program — is an academic success program for students from farmworker families.

Today, about two dozen students are making PowerPoint presentations with images and quotes meant to inspire them as they work their way through school.

Jasmin Sanchez and Samuel Romero, both from the Valley, both the children of farmworkers from Michoacán, are sharing a computer.

Sanchez, who has a young child, has already added some images representing motherhood to her presentation. Now she searches around on Google for an image that represents the future. “That’s kind of where I’m at,” she says. “I’m focused on the future.”

CAMP is just one of many support systems that Heritage offers. There are programs for Native Americans, programs for first generation students, college retention classes, tutoring, mentoring, and a barrage of remedial classes for students who aren’t quite ready for college when they come to Heritage. President John Bassett says that those programs are meant to help the many Heritage students who “arrive not quite sure what college is all about.”

There are also more unofficial support systems.

Professors at Heritage are expected to engage with their students in a way that can feel much more intense than at other universities.

Chemistry professor Tyson Miller says when he came to Heritage after working at more selective universities, he found he had teach differently so his students wouldn’t be discouraged. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Chemistry professor Tyson Miller says when he came to Heritage after working at more selective universities, he found he had to teach differently so his students wouldn’t be discouraged. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Chemistry professor Tyson Miller came to Heritage after teaching at the University of Illinois and the University of Connecticut. At those schools he grew accustomed to teaching to the top 5 percent, searching for the next great chemist in his classes of hundreds. That meant, he says, applying pressure to winnow out the weak and identify the strong.

“When I came to Heritage, what I found was that [the students] are not used to that pressure,” he says. “They feel defeated before you start. So it forced me to look at the 12 years of training that I’d had in teaching classes this way and reevaluate them to make sure that with this population you’re working with, they’re actually going to work.”

Among other things, that meant accepting that students sometimes brought their kids to class when their childcare fell through. Or giving students a pass when they missed chemistry because their cars broke down. Or giving out his cell number to his students, and not being surprised when they called to talk about personal issues.

“I’ve had more students here where I’ve talked about homelessness, unexpected pregnancy, divorces, domestic abuse,” he says. “With the nontraditional students they’re dealing with life factors that they can’t just set aside completely to come get the education. So I have to address that part too.”

Jennifer Delgado is one of Miller’s students and a young mother. A couple of years ago, when she was taking her first chemistry class with Miller, her boyfriend was deported. He had been supporting her; without him, Delgado struggled to pay rent and buy food for her son. Her grades plummeted, and she considered dropping out of school.

“I was just so overwhelmed,” she says today.

Miller talked Delgado out of dropping out. He even formed a new chemistry class to give her and other struggling students more time to learn the material.

“He was very sensitive to the situation,” she says. “And even though this situation has been crappy, he’s always been very optimistic, [saying] ‘We’ll figure something out.’ …. As corny as it may sound, it was very, very life changing.”

But all these support systems — the official programs, the sympathetic faculty — do they actually help students succeed? Heritage’s graduation rates are stubbornly low. The federal government pegs the school’s six-year rate at 21 percent, meaning that only one-fifth of first-time, full-time students who start at Heritage will graduate six years later.

Part of that, President Bassett says, can be chalked up to flaws in how the federal rates are calculated.

“If you go part time you don’t count, if you transfer you don’t count,” he says. At Heritage, first-time, full-time students make up only about a third of new undergrads.

Calculating graduation rates this way “takes care of Amherst and Williams and Swarthmore,” Basset says. “It doesn’t take care of probably 85 percent of American students.”

Bassett says he’d prefer a measure that tracked his students in a more realistic way. Say, set a personal projected graduation date when they enroll, and measure the school against how close students come to meeting that goal.

But, Bassett says, no matter how you look at them, the numbers aren’t great. Boosting graduation rates is one of his top priorities, and that means more than remedial classes and support systems. It also means that the school has to become a bit more selective. Before Bassett’s tenure, Heritage operated under an open-enrollment policy. It would accept pretty much anyone who applied. The school now turns some applicants down, and it encourages students who aren’t ready for a four-year college to do a year or two at a community college first.

“I think in the past we probably took some students for whom this was the wrong time to come to college,” Bassett says. “Some of those students shouldn’t have been admitted. They really weren’t ready to go to school here. And they needed to be told that Heritage is not the right place for [them].”

I asked Bassett if that meant diluting some of Heritage’s original mission of access to higher education for everyone in the Valley.

“If you and I can’t look at each other eyeball to eyeball and say, ‘This student has a good chance to succeed,’ it may be unethical for us to accept that student because he’s going to accrue debt, he’s going to flunk out and feel bad about himself and education,” he says. “So I don’t believe we are denying access to anyone who has a chance to succeed here. Our door is still open to the student who is ready to work hard and learn and we will provide the help to get them through. We are not giving up any of that mission at all.”

The Director of Admissions Makes House Calls

Heritage University’s admissions director, Olivia Gutierrez (right), sometimes visits students at home to make sure they can overcome obstacles and stay in school. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

Heritage University’s admissions director, Olivia Gutierrez (right), sometimes visits students at home to make sure they can overcome obstacles and stay in school. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

“¡Hola! ¿Como están?”

Olivia Gutierrez, Heritage’s Director of Admissions, raps on the door of a compact house just down the road from Heritage. This is the home of the Gonzalez family: 20-year-old Joanna, her father Victor, mother Veronica, and five other relatives who share the house surrounded by the fields where Victor picks hops.

Gutierrez has come to check up on Joanna, who spent a semester at Heritage but dropped out last spring to take care of her nieces and nephews. She re-enrolled this semester. Gutierrez is here to make sure school is going okay and that Joanna stays in this time.

Gutierrez first met the family when the farmer who employees Victor brought Gutierrez in to talk to his workers about higher education.

“It was pretty cool because I was originally going to attend [community college], and then I met Olivia,” Joanna says. “She talked to me about the program and gave me a tour of the campus and I really liked it. I said, ‘This is much better for me, it’s not as big and I won’t get lost, this is perfect.'”

But Joanna’s parents were nervous about the whole idea of college.

“We knew there was a college close by,” Veronica says in Spanish. “But for us it was something very difficult. We knew college was expensive. It was hard to look for scholarships, and money to pay for college. We didn’t understand the help that was out there, and we didn’t really know where to start the process.”

Navigating the college process — the financial aid documents, the applications — can be tremendously complicated, especially for immigrant families.

“Oh my God, try opening one of those documents,” Gutierrez says. “They’re intense, intimidating, they ask a lot of questions that are very worrisome for a lot of our students. Are your parents married, what is the family situation? It’s hard for them to understand when it’s hard for them to spell their name.”

And college is expensive. Tuition at Heritage is about $18,500 a year. It’s one of the cheapest private four-year colleges in the state of Washington, but it’s still a real stretch for the kinds of students the school attracts, even with grants and loans. It can be difficult for families to see the value in higher education, especially when compared to a paycheck.

Gutierrez gets this viscerally. She came from a migrant farmworker family a lot like Joanna’s.

“We had no idea there was college, [or] anything beyond high school. It was unheard of,” she says. “Education was not something that was ever talked about. It was not something that was going to improve our lives in any way, shape, or form. What was important for us was to learn to work hard, clean the house, do the chores.”

Gutierrez got pregnant at 15 and dropped out of high school to take care of her daughter. She got jobs working in the Valley’s fields and at a Mexican restaurant.

“Out of school, limited English, undocumented, very young mother …. My future was definitely the warehouse or the fields,” she remembers. “That’s all I knew and that’s all I could see for my future.”

A lucky encounter with a restaurant customer who told her about the GED got Gutierrez thinking about higher education for the first time. She decided to go for her GED, and that got her hooked on education. Eventually Gutierrez went back to school and earned a bachelor’s in business from Heritage. Ten years later, she’s the school’s Admissions Director. Her background seems to make her an unlikely pick for the job, she acknowledges. But it’s actually key to her ability to help Heritage’s students access higher education.

“I know what it is to get up at 3:00 in the morning to pick those cherries, to cut asparagus. I know exactly what it is to do that work,” she says. “And I know exactly what a college education can do for their children, and [I can] tell them that it can be done.”

Heritage serves a unique population: In many ways, the school is as “nontraditional” as they come. But students like Heritage’s — older students, students with children, Latino students — are coming to higher education all across the country. Gutierrez says that schools, and students, have to be ready.

“We are a fast-growing minority,” she says. “And we are the less educated. And we have to start doing something about it. Because what are we going to look like a few decades from now if we’re not pushing our children to get an education?”

Episode: The New Face of College