Sunday, October 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A small-town university fulfilling big-time dreams

Seattle Times staff reporter

Heritage University

Founded: 1982

Enrollment: 1,508 students. Includes 862 undergraduates, 476 graduate students and 170 completing General Educational Development (GED) certificates.

Undergraduate student profile:

Race/ethnicity: 53 percent Hispanic; 34 percent white; 11 percent American Indian; 1 percent African American; 1 percent Asian American.

Gender: 76 percent female; 24 percent male.

Average age: Freshmen: 26. All undergraduates: 30.

Top five declared majors: Business administration; education; nursing; social work; science

Tuition: $8,400 per year.

Campus: 28-acre commuter campus with seven buildings and 10 portables. Currently 206 full- and part-time faculty.

Web site:

Source: Heritage University

BUENA, Yakima County — It's just after 5 a.m. on the second day of classes and too early for university freshman Magali Ambriz to consider eating breakfast.

Her dad is leaving the family cottage to pick apples and Ambriz, 20, will soon follow to trim and train grapevines before her afternoon business class. Her hands are fast: She's worked in the fields since she was 13, soon after her family of seven moved from Mexico.

"The best decision was for us to come over here, otherwise Magali wouldn't have been able to study at college," whispers mom Irma Arreola, with Ambriz translating softly as her younger brother stirs on the living-room couch. "The main reason we brought the children here was to move forward and get a better future."

That hope is what has drawn many Hispanic farm workers to the towns of the lower Yakima Valley, one of the poorest and least-educated parts of the state. And quietly helping deliver that future for the past 25 years is one of the more unusual small-town colleges in the country: Heritage University in Toppenish.

It's barely known in Seattle. But speak to a teacher in Yakima, a nurse in Sunnyside or a social worker in Grandview, and chances are they were educated at Heritage.

Begun in an abandoned elementary school, the private university has grown from a few dozen students to more than 1,500. It's reaching students in a region ignored by the public system, and is raising overall educational attainment there.

Heritage has a higher proportion of minority and low-income undergraduates than any other university in the state: 53 percent are Hispanic and 11 percent American Indian. Nine out of every 10 undergrads qualify for federal financial aid.

The university defies categorization. Although it's private, its philosophy and tuition resemble that of a public university. It's within the Yakama Nation reservation yet is managed independently from the tribe, an arrangement unique in the U.S. It's nondenominational but is run by a Roman Catholic nun — a woman who won a $335,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, then gave the money to students through scholarships and other programs.

Although the college has received solid support for years from charitable foundations on the East Coast, this year it landed a $2.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, representing — finally — significant recognition closer to home.

The grant means that by spring, when the college marks its 25th anniversary, work will begin on a $15 million project to build 13 classrooms and labs, and a large meeting hall. Ditching trailer classrooms for brick and mortar will represent a sense of permanence for the commuter campus, which for two decades struggled just to survive.

Focus on education

Classes on the rural campus begin in the midst of the fall harvest, when the fragrance of sweet mint competes with pungent hops. Crop fields surround the school and stretch deep into Yakama territory, which is dotted with Indian Shaker churches, longhouses and abandoned missions. Beyond that, wild horses roam an endless expanse of open range.

Students at the college have studied everything from mapping the potato genome to recycling wine-industry waste. The biggest focus is on education: preparing students to become teachers and, in master's programs, preparing teachers to become counselors and principals.

Four years ago, Tiffiny Shilow, 26, was living on the Yakama reservation without a job or a car, and with a young son, Timothy, to raise. One day she stopped by the Heritage library to read books with Timothy. She began chatting with the librarian and decided to take some classes.

Now, Shilow is driven by an ambition to become a doctor and eventually practice medicine on the reservation. Each day, the biology and chemistry junior rises before dawn to run several miles. She works part-time tutoring and refereeing basketball games, juggling classes and study with motherhood. To help make it through, she drinks about half a gallon of Mountain Dew a day.

This year, through a collaboration Heritage has with the University of Washington, she was awarded a paid internship to study diabetes. Her goal is to attend the UW School of Medicine within two years.

Shilow is one of many single moms at Heritage, where three-quarters of undergraduates are women. She occasionally finds herself in a bind and takes her 5-year-old son to class. Nobody says a word — but that doesn't mean it's not a studious environment, she adds.

"Everybody takes it seriously," she said. "They know here what it takes to improve lives. And this is the only place to do it."

"You brought hope"

Heritage's first and only president, Sister Kathleen Ross, 65, comes across as a kindly, razor-sharp older aunt. She's been at the university so long that some of her first students have children attending now. Yet walking across campus, she still greets many students by name.

Her religious vow of poverty means that most of her $143,000 salary goes straight to Catholic poverty projects and to the college, putting her among the top donors. She lives on $15,000 a year — less than the UW football coach earns every four days.

Before working at Heritage, Sister Ross was a vice president at Spokane-based Fort Wright College. When money problems around 1980 forced the Sisters of the Holy Names to close Fort Wright, she was dispatched to tell folks involved in the college's Toppenish outreach program. But people there had other ideas.

"You brought hope down here. You can't take it away. Let's have lunch," Sister Ross recalls Yakama Nation educator Martha Yallup telling her.

Yallup and her friend, the late Violet Rau, wanted to start their own independent college, an idea Sister Ross considered crazy. But townsfolk soon rallied behind them, and in 1981, Heritage College was born. Yallup and Rau voted the nun president before she had time to object.

The first class was held under a sycamore tree. The budget? About $7,000, a gift from some Catholic nuns in Canada. A formal opening was celebrated the following year. Money was so tight that faculty and administrators had their paychecks delayed several times when heating bills arrived.

In 1984 came near disaster. The chief financial officer had quietly stopped paying payroll taxes in a misguided effort to shore up finances. The CFO promptly left after the incident. The Internal Revenue Service threatened to close the college before five community leaders stepped in to underwrite the $75,000 bill.

The college recovered and gained full accreditation in 1986. Philanthropists were taking notice of the focus on minority students. As the college grew, hundreds of thousands of dollars began coming from the Rockefeller, Mellon and Star foundations, among others. A new library was built. When Sister Ross won the genius award in 1997, it helped inspire some people to leave better-paying jobs elsewhere in the country to work at Heritage.

A costly and ultimately unsuccessful foray to expand the undergraduate program in southwest Washington six years ago set the college back again. But the graduate program in education has continued to grow. Hoping to reflect what it considers the institution's increasing stature, the board made a name change in 2004: Heritage University.

Pride of the community

Heritage opens its doors to almost any student who's interested. Many are required to complete intensive catch-up courses before beginning freshman classes.

About 43 percent of incoming freshmen graduate within six years. That's below graduation rates of 73 percent at the UW, 63 percent at WSU and 49 percent at Eastern Washington University. But Heritage fares much better when comparing the fate of minority and low-income students. Officials add that many working adults eventually graduate, just not within the six-year benchmark.

Still, the college has never enjoyed national recognition. Until this year, that is, when 15 business students, on a shoestring budget, became the pride of the community.

The students were part of an organization called Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, charged with improving people's lives by educating them about the free market. Over the year, the team handed out thousands of piggy banks — called moonjars — to local middle-schoolers, explaining to the kids how to spend, share and save money. The Heritage students convinced sponsors to send them to Mexico in order to set up a microlending program that helped subsistence farmers sell chickens and eggs.

The team's snappy presentation of their achievements won a state competition, sending them to Kansas City, Mo., with 179 other finalists.

Before leaving for the competition, business professor Len Black had team members practice their presentation for hours every day. As if training them for a prize fight, Black would toss cardboard boxes at them to teach them how to stay focused amid distractions. He even persuaded them to practice while standing on rocks in the middle of a fast-moving river.

The students had reason to feel passionate. One of the presenters, Maggie Alejandre, 24, said she still feels the sting from a high-school counselor's advice — that she should pursue hairdressing because Hispanic students are good with their hands.

"I think it made me very rebellious, and very optimistic to prove the bias wrong," said Alejandre, who graduated recently with a bachelor's in business.

In Kansas City, Heritage won round after round. Hourly e-mail updates zinged back to Toppenish, as students and faculty became riveted. By the time Heritage made the final four, Carnegie Mellon, Pepperdine and Texas A&M universities were all out.

The final presentation was in front of 3,000 students and business leaders. Black led the team in one last practice using soda cans as microphones. Heritage finished second, edged out by another small college, Graceland University of Iowa. The University of Arizona was third. It remains one of the college's proudest moments.

"I want to run things"

Back in Buena on the second day of classes, Magali Ambriz jumps in her beat-up Honda and drives along back roads to a vineyard in Zillah. She's glad she's not picking pears: They are heavy and make your arms ache, she says.

"I see my dad come home every day from the fields, and he's tired," she says. "He just wants to sleep. He's so tired."

The foreman at the vineyard hands out pruning shears and tape to the workers, all Hispanic, and sends each down a separate row of vines. As the darkness dissolves, the towering outlines of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams take form.

After four hours pruning, Ambriz returns home to freshen up, then drives to Heritage. By going to college, she hopes to set an example for her younger siblings and relatives, she says. Perhaps she'll one day become an accountant.

Her business-administration professor is Black, the SIFE team adviser and a former international executive at the Duracell battery company. Ambriz, who gave advice and encouragement to the SIFE team in Kansas City, is now a team presenter.

In class, Black gives his freshmen a no-nonsense pep talk:

"Don't turn garbage into me. I usually grade papers at night when I'm crotchety and tired," he warns, looking them over. "One advantage is that you have lots of experience working and you know what responsibility is."

The students introduce themselves and explain why they took his course.

"Business is everywhere," says one. "And one day, I want to run things."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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