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Heritage University educates Hispanic, Yakama

Kathleen Ross, SNJM, served as president of Heritage University in Toppenish. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Ross

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

On Nov. 3, the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce awarded the former president of Heritage University, Kathleen Ross, SNJM, the annual Ted Robertson Award, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the greater Yakima area.

Her service in the Yakima Valley has had a tremendous impact. Forty years ago, at the instigation of two Yakama Nation women—Martha Yallup and Violet Lumley Rau—and with the support of regional leaders from the tribes, the business community and the Catholic Church, Kathleen became the inaugural president of Heritage College, now Heritage University, in Toppenish.

The story of Heritage University inspires dreamers who see a need and act to fill that need.

In the early 1970s, the only local access to four-year higher education was through satellite education programs in the Yakima Valley and Okanogan Valley, operated by the Sisters of the Holy Names' Fort Wright College in Spokane.

Because of ongoing enrollment and financial problems at Fort Wright College, in 1980 the Sisters announced they would soon close the Spokane college.

Violet and Martha came to Kathleen Ross, who was Fort Wright's vice president for academic affairs, and insisted they couldn't lose their college program.

Kathleen, a Seattle native, joined the Sisters of the Holy Names in 1960. She graduated from Fort Wright College with a bachelor's degree, from Georgetown University with a master's degree, and from the Claremont Graduate School with a doctorate.

At Claremont, she gained skills in managing an institution of higher learning and learned principles of successful financing—the kind of funding Heritage's educational programs would need. 

"One reason I chose the Sisters of the Holy Names was that they were good educators and well-known in Seattle," Kathleen said, "and I wanted to be an educator."

When Violet and Martha came to her, their request touched that motivation. They told her, "You brought hope to the Valley and you can't take it away."

When Kathleen's efforts to find another university to take over the programs failed, the two returned.

They suggested, "We have a new idea. Why don't we just start our own college?"

Kathleen replied: "You're crazy."

Martha replied, "Tell us one thing we can't do."

Kathleen tried to convince them this was impossible. She asked them to find a board of directors with influential, experienced, affluent people.

Martha and Violet worked their magic and came back with a list of people who committed to the board—important people from the Valley: the bishop, business and tribal leaders and more.

The process of beginning a college in Toppenish began in earnest with a feasibility study to design its programs.

The college opened in 1982 with 85 students in the empty McKinley Elementary School near Toppenish.

Its 1984 mission statement said the new institution was to provide quality, accessible higher education at the undergraduate and graduate levels to a multicultural population, which has been educationally isolated.

"Its unique educational programs are specifically tailored to the needs of a rural constituency consisting of approximately one-third Caucasian, one-third Hispanic and one-third American Indian students," Kathleen said.

The first board of directors chose the name Heritage College because they wanted it to be a name students from diverse cultures could identify with, she said. 

According to Kathleen, the ensuing 40 years of growth and development has included "some minor miracles."

With the closure of Fort Wright College and Heritage purchasing its satellite programs, she was able to leverage status from the U.S. Department of Education to have students eligible for financial assistance.

After the Rajneeshpuram religious compound was closed down in Oregon in 1985, Heritage College acquired their portables to expand the campus classroom and office space.

In financial hardship, when Kathleen applied for a loan of several hundred thousand dollars from the Intersharing Fund of the Sisters of the Holy Names, she received a grant.

She became a MacArthur Fellow in 1997 and used the financial award for research and development of programs at what was named Heritage University in 2004.

The university, where Kathleen was president until 2010 and with which she is still associated, has provided significant service to the Yakima Valley.

Heritage offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in more than 40 programs. It has awarded more than 10,000 degrees, with more than 85 percent of them to first-generation college students.

Now at 70 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Native American, it is identified federally as a Hispanic-serving and Native American nontribal-serving institution.

Its graduates have entered more than 50 areas of work, including as Spanish-speaking school social workers, business entrepreneurs and managers, and researchers on endangered species in Washington.

Historically, the university was founded as a nonsectarian institution, not affiliated with any church or religious institution.

However, given the role of more than 12 Sisters of the Holy Names, the Catholic religious congregation that has been part of Heritage since its founding, its educational values have been influenced by them, Kathleen said.

The Sisters of the Holy Names Congregation was founded in rural Quebec in 1843 to start schools in isolated towns where the poor had no educational opportunities.

Kathleen said they emphasized high academic standards that enkindled the mind in a personalized learning environment. They envisioned education as the full human development of each student—intellectually, professionally, spiritually and morally—while creating community and inspiring service to others. Over the years, they embedded these values in educational ventures pursued worldwide, with respect for various cultures.

Today Heritage has a director of spirituality on its staff.

Because of this background, the tradition at events like graduations is to begin with a prayer and sacred song, most often led by a Yakama tribal member.

Since retiring as president, Kathleen continues to help the university serve the Yakima area. She and others at the university established the Ross Institute for Student Success, produced a video series to assist faculty and wrote a book, Breakthrough Strategies, published in 2017 by Harvard University Press. The book helps teachers of low-income families who haven't had the opportunity to go to college.

"They are exactly the kind of students that Heritage has become an expert in dealing with and really caring about," Kathleen explained.

"There's tremendous untapped genius and talent that is important for our society in the next generations," she added. "Heritage will continue to be a small institution that will do a good job.

"We continue to learn from our students the best ways to reach them, pull out their potential and motivate them to develop. Then we share that with other institutions around the nation," she said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January 2023