Washington area university faces obstacles, prospers from ground up

By Nick Perry MCT

BUENA, Wash. – 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 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, Wash.

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 other universities in the state: 53 percent are Hispanic and 11 percent American Indian. Nine out of 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 who won a $335,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, then gave the money to students through scholarships and programs.

Although the college has received 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, as 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 will represent a permanence for the commuter campus, which for two decades struggled just to survive.