Heritage University makes appearance on two prestigious “Best Colleges” lists


Heritage University makes appearance on two prestigious “Best Colleges” lists

Toppenish, Wash. – Heritage University’s mission to make higher education accessible to anyone with the talent and drive to pursue a degree – regardless of economics, culture, and geographic location – is gaining recognition as a “best college” on two different lists. Niche.com, a college ranking and review website, placed Heritage at number five on its “Best Private Colleges in Washington” list; and U.S. News and World Report ranked Heritage at number 50 (out of 104) on its “Best Regional Universities-West” list.

Niche says while both private and public schools contribute significantly to postsecondary education, private institutions stand out because of their smaller size, esteemed reputation, and flexible programs. They generally offer smaller class sizes, leading to more direct instruction and support. Heritage has long championed its strength in small numbers. “Heritage students enjoy an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio,” says Heritage University Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Melissa Hill, Ph.D. “They don’t feel like just a number. They get more one-on-one time with their professors, individual tutoring and advising, as well as other opportunities that students who choose a larger university will never experience,” said Dr. Hill.

While U.S. News rankings are based on several categories of quality indicators, including outcomes (graduation, retention, and graduation rate performance), peer assessment, and faculty resources, to name a few, many of the universities listed alongside Heritage have histories spanning decades, even centuries. Heritage has attained a ranking in the top half of the list while only being 42 years old, a staggering accomplishment considering it is a widely believed consensus in the higher education community that it takes a long time for schools to achieve a high rank. U.S. News’ research also shows that the greater access students have to quality instructors, the more likely they are to be engaged in their classes, learn, and ultimately graduate. “At Heritage, our students learn from world-class professors right here in the Yakima Valley,” said Heritage University President Andrew Sund, Ph.D. “These professors have connections to businesses who offer career-launching internships, while others have relationships with scholars programs at prestigious colleges nationwide that can put students onto the path of pursuing master’s degrees and doctoral degrees,” said Dr. Sund.

Heritage University welcomes the prestige and reputation boosts that come with these recognitions. “We believe the rankings reflect the investments we have made into our programs and the experiences our students receive as a result of them,” said Vice President of Advancement and Marketing & Communications David Wise. For more information, please contact Davidson Mance, media relations coordinator, at (509) 969-6084 or mance_d@heritage.edu.

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Heritage University Class of 2024 Commencement


Heritage University to hold Class of 2024 Commencement at
Yakima Valley SunDome

Yakima, Wash. – Heritage University celebrates the Class of 2024 at Commencement on Saturday, May 11, at 10:00 a.m. at the Yakima Valley SunDome. Undergraduate and graduate degrees will be conferred upon students graduating from the Heritage Toppenish campus and the Tri-Cities regional site. Overall, 197 students earned their degrees at Heritage this year.

Jim Pigott of Seattle, Wash., philanthropist, and generous benefactor of Heritage University will present this year’s commencement address. Pigott and his wife, Gaye, are long-time supporters of Heritage and its students. Among their many initiatives are the creation of the Gay and Jim Pigott Nursing Endowment at Heritage and Seattle Children’s Hospital made through a $4 million gift in 2023 and the establishment of the Moccasin Lake Foundation Scholarship. Additionally, they have funded numerous campus projects, including the construction of the Gaye and Jim Pigott Commons which is home to the university’s café, conference rooms, and student lounge and is an integral part of the daily operations at the institution. The number of lives impacted by the Pigotts’ philanthropy is immeasurable. Throughout their lifetimes, they’ve supported countless organizations through their charitable giving and volunteer services throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

It is also with profound honor and remembrance that Heritage University announces the posthumous awarding of an honorary doctoral degree to Professor Emeritus of Education Edwin “Ed” Rousculp, who passed away in January. Rousculp’s tenure at Heritage began in 1983 when he started teaching English in the evenings as an adjunct instructor while still teaching at the Yakama Nation Tribal School. After leaving to pursue his graduate studies at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., he returned to Heritage in 1993. as a full-time faculty member in the College of Education. That same year he was appointed Chair of the Teacher Education Program. He served in that role until 2005 when he became the Director of the Center for Intercultural Learning and Teaching, where he remained until his retirement in 2022.

Heritage University will present the 2024 Violet Lumley Rau Outstanding Alumnus Award to Jennifer Johann for her dedication to helping lift the field of education and the educational outcomes for all children in her community. Johann earned both a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education in 2004 and an M.Ed. in professional development in 2007 from Heritage. Johann has spent 19 years teaching in the Mount Adams School District and currently teaches third grade at Harrah Elementary School. Throughout her career, she’s built a rapport with her students that cemented her reputation as a teacher who truly cares. Outside the classroom, she assists other Harrah Elementary students through her work as a 21st-century supervisor for the NCAC-Farmworkers Clinic after-school program. As an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation, Johann brings her cultural insights to her work, promoting inclusivity and diversity within the school and the broader community. Among her many efforts, she created the Since Time Immemorial website for her district, which provides teacher and school resources that incorporate indigenous perspectives into education.

Heritage will also announce the recipients of the Board of Directors Academic Excellence Award, which is presented to all undergraduate students who earned a perfect 4.0 during their studies, and the President’s Council Student Award of Distinction during the ceremony.

The Yakima Valley SunDome is located at 1301 South Fair Ave. in Yakima. Parking is free. Additional information is available online at https://heritage.edu/student-resources/commencement-2024/.

For more information, contact Davidson Mance, media relations coordinator at (509) 969-6084 or Mance_D@Heritage.edu.


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A Heart for Heritage – Wings Spring 2024

When Dick and Pat Twiss made the Yakima Valley their home 57 years ago, they brought with them a passion for making a difference in the lives of those around them. Dick, now a retired cardiologist, dedicated 45 years to delivering essential medical care that not only extended the lives of his patients but also enhanced their overall well-being. His expertise was literally lifesaving, fostering longer and healthier lives for countless patients.

However, the Twisses’ impact goes beyond the medical realm. Together, their shared commitment to elevating the quality of life in their community led them to support many civic endeavors and eventually to Heritage University, where they became a transformative force. Their dedication has unlocked doors of opportunity through education for countless individuals. While maybe not lifesaving in the same way as a heart surgeon, the lives they have touched have been transformed in meaningful ways.

Dick and Pat Twiss have orchestrated a narrative of community enrichment. Their story is a testament to the profound influence that compassion and commitment can have on both the individual and the community at large, creating a legacy that resonates with the transformative power of education and the ripple effect of philanthropy.

The Twiss’ Heritage story began shortly after the university began in the early 1980s. A colleague told Dick about “a couple of nuns” from the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who had started a college in rural Toppenish, Washington, just a few miles south of Yakima.

“I was educated for 12 years in The Dalles by the Sisters of the Holy Names,” said Dick, who grew up in the small Oregon town. “I was familiar with sisters’ work in primary and secondary education and was curious about what they were doing in Toppenish. I asked my colleague to introduce me to the sisters so I could learn more.”

Pat and Dick Twiss

Dick and Pat traveled down to the fledgling campus and met with Sister Kathleen Ross, Heritage’s founding president. At the time, Heritage had only been operating for four years. It was little more than a few classrooms in a former elementary school and a library created from books handed down from its predecessor school, Fort Wright College. As they toured the school and met with Ross, they also talked to a few of the students, and faculty and staff.

“We were impressed by the work being done and by the students we spoke to,” said Dick. “They were all so dedicated, and the students were eager to learn. Sr. Kathleen and her staff were creating an environment and teaching style unlike anything else. It was specifically designed so that the students they were working with would be successful. For the most part, these students were low-income, minorities and the first in their families to go to college, and they had no other options available to them to earn a degree.”

That first meeting sparked a nearly four-decade-long relationship that helped build the institution as it stands today. Their financial support has funded student scholarships, including an endowed scholarship in their name dedicated to helping students studying to enter the medical field, helped student clubs travel to national competitions, and helped build a thriving campus. They even expanded the footprint of the university when they purchased the old Toppenish Grange, which sat across the roadfrom the college, and gifted the property to Heritage. That old building was used for many years as an art room and meeting hall before the property was converted to house an early learning center.

As impressive as their generosity towards Heritage is, their commitment goes much deeper than their financial support. Dick spent a total of 21 years on the board of directors, once from 1990-2002 and a second time from 2007- 2016, and he was the Board Chairman from 2007-2009. He’s been part of the leadership team at almost every significant milestone in the university’s history: every multi-million-dollar capital campaign, the construction of nearly every building on the campus, the development of some of the university’s most successful academic programs, and the transition of leadership when Ross announced her retirement and the subsequent national search and hiring of Heritage’s second president, Dr. John Bassett.

Dick and Pat have also been fixtures at many of Heritage’s key events. They cheered on their favorite team at the polo fundraising events that took place during the university’s early years. They’ve attended every Scholarship Dinner. They were there for the openings of ten campus buildings, including the Arts and Sciences Center, Petrie Hall, Kathleen Ross snjm Building, the Martha B. Yallup Health Sciences Building and Violet Lumley Rau Center. They were part of the crowd of supporters who celebrated Ross when she retired and welcomed both Bassett, and current president Dr. Andrew Sund, at their inaugurations. And they have been among the scores of families and friends who cheered for graduates as they walked across the stage to get their well-earned degrees at several commencements.

“What is truly remarkable about Dick and Pat is how great their hearts are for this university and our students,” said David Wise, vice president for Advancement. “Every time there is a need, they are among the first to step forward and say, ‘How can we help.’ Together, they’ve made more individual gifts to Heritage than any other donor. There isn’t a student at Heritage, past, present or future, whose education hasn’t been touched by Dick and Pat.”

For the couple, what first excited them about Heritage, and what has kept them such ardent supporters over the years, is the impact the institution has both on the lives of the individuals who are attending the college, as well as on the community in which it serves.

“You can so clearly see the need here,” said Dick. “The need for a university to provide education to those who are unable to go anywhere else to learn, and the need for supporting scholarship so that these students can afford to go to college.

“Education is truly life-changing for these students and their families, and we can see the impact they are making in our schools and businesses and health centers after they graduate.”

Pat added, “There are lots of colleges out there, bigger colleges, who do a fine job educating young people. But they have so many more resources available to them. We feel like, through Heritage, we are really able to make a difference.”

“We are very proud of the university,” said Dick. “It gives us great pleasure knowing that we’ve been a part of their success.”  Heritage Eagle

2023 A Year in Review


It was a very busy and productive year at Heritage in 2023. The university celebrated many impressive accomplishments, including expanded degree programs, a new regional location, record-breaking fundraising, strengthened partnerships, and students achieving greatness. Here are a few highlights.

Tri-Cities Expansion!

Heritage expanded its reach in the Tri-Cities area by opening a new regional location in Kennewick. Students can now complete all four years of study in one of six majors – accounting, business administration, criminal justice, education, psychology, or social work – without leaving the Tri-Cities area. Or, they can complete their first two years in Kennewick and then attend classes at the main campus in Toppenish to complete their studies in any of Heritage’s degree programs. It welcomed its first cohort of freshmen for the fall 2023 semester.

The university maintains its relationship with Columbia Basin College (CBC), and students graduating from CBC continue to seamlessly transfer to Heritage to complete their bachelor’s degrees on the college’s campus.

New Graduate Programs!

Heritage developed two new master’s degree programs, the Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling and the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs.

The MSW program was developed through the support of a five-year, $5.5 million federal grant awarded to Educational Service District 105, which included provisions for the university’s program development. This fall, the program received pre-candidacy status from the Council on Social Work Education’s Board of Accreditation, opening it up to begin recruiting for a fall 2024 start.

A five-year, $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education supported the development and launch of the mental health program. It received approval from the university’s accreditation board and is currently recruiting its first cohort of students who will start in the fall.

Breaking Records!

In June, the 37th annual Bounty of the Valley Scholarship Dinner broke all previous records, bringing in $872,559 for student scholarships. The event was held at the Toppenish campus and live- streamed so that those who could not attend in person could still participate in real-time.


Strengthened Collaboration!
Heritage and Children’s Hospital of Seattle cemented their partnership surrounding nursing education and shared goals to increase diversity within the profession and improve healthcare in rural communities. The partnership brings hospital nursing staff to Heritage to serve as adjunct faculty members and allows Heritage students to complete a 4-week pediatric clinical rotation at the hospital.

Together, Heritage and Children’s launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to create endowments to support the program in perpetuity. In fall 2023, Jim and Gaye Piggot, who are deeply invested in supporting healthcare and education, announced a $4 million gift to be divided between the two organizations, establishing the Gaye and Jim Pigott Nursing Endowment at Seattle Children’s and the Gaye and Jim Pigott Endowed Chair of Nursing at Heritage.

For the Children!

Heritage opened the new Early Learning Center (ELC) at its Toppenish Campus in March. Construction of the $4.1 million state-of-the-art facility started in spring the year before. It was funded by an anonymous donor.

The new ELC has five classrooms and is larger than the previous facility, allowing it to increase enrollment from 74 to 90 students. Its location, just east of the university’s main campus parking lot, makes it easier and safer for parents to pick up and drop off their children.

The ELC programs are designed to offer experiences that enhance and enrich each child’s cognitive, language, social, emotional, physical and creative development. It serves children from 12 months through pre-kindergarten.

Addressing Food Insecurity!

Heritage opened Eagles Market, a program to address food insecurity among students and their familes. The food pantry is supplied with frozen, refrigerated and non-perishable food items by Opportunities Industrializaiton Center (OIC) in Yakima. It is open for students to stop by and pick up free, nutritious food Monday through Friday. It was made possible by a contribution by Kwik Lok Corporation in Yakima and through a gift from an anonymous donor. Heritage Eagle



News Briefs – Wings Spring 2024



College of Education professor receives national award for dissertation

HU Assistant Professor Amy Nuñez, Ph.D., received third place in the Kurt M. Landgraf Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) and the Educational Testing Service. The award is given annually to spotlight top doctoral students and to showcase Hispanic students’ excellence. The goal is to encourage more Hispanic students to pursue doctoral degrees and to enhance the quality of the dissertations these students write.

Nuñez received her award for her dissertation, I Wish They Knew We Existed: The Academic Experiences of Latinx College Students in Mixed-Status Families. She completed her work as part of her doctoral studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy. She presented her dissertation at the AAHHE conference in March when she received her award. Heritage Eagle


Theatrical troupe set to perform professor’s script on a national tour

Professor Winona Wynn received an award from The National Endowment for the Arts to write a script about the life of Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to cross the western United States.

Sacagawea was performed by The Core Ensemble at a special invitation- only venue in Lakeworth, Florida. It was so well received that the company commissioned Wynn to write two additional scripts featuring Native American women to be included in a production that will go on tour across the United States this fall. Wynn completed a script about Wilma Mankiller, the first primary chief of the Cherokee Nation, and has a third script about Yankton Dakota writer, educator, translator, musician and political activist Zitkala-Ša, in progress.

The Core Ensemble performs works highlighting three historical figures in a presentation that blends compelling narrative with musical accompaniment. Each production includes educational programming to accompany the stories. Heritage Eagle





HU alumni challenge other graduates to Pay it Forward

A new endowed scholarship established by Heritage graduates will help future students rounding the corner toward graduation. Called Pay it Forward, the fund was started by two Heritage alumni to both give thanks for the help they received when they were undergraduates and to pass along those blessings to future generations of students. The couple, who wish to remain anonymous, set up the endowment with the initial contribution and hope that other graduates will contribute to the fund and help it grow.

“Most of us Heritage alumni received some sort of financial support while we were in college. We envision other alumni contributing to this fund as a way to help students get an extra push on their final step in their educational journey.”

Scholarships from the fund are earmarked for junior and senior students.

Endowed scholarships have the potential to make the greatest impact on the greatest number of students over time. They are created through a significant initial investment, which is held in perpetuity and invested for long-term growth. Scholarships are awarded annually as directed by the university Board of Directors. Gifts to the university can be directed to the endowed scholarship, which will grow the principal and ultimately increase the number of students who benefit from the gift. To make your gift to Pay it Forward, visit heritage.edu/giving. Heritage Eagle

Nursing program gets shot in the arm with grant to expand outreach and support

Heritage University received a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the Biden-Harris Administration to launch an innovative program to address the critical shortage of nurses in our rural communities. The program is called Pathways to Opportunity and takes a two-pronged approach to addressing nursing education. First, it increases outreach into local high schools to guide students interested in a nursing career and helps them prepare for college. Second, it provides for dedicated case managers within the university’s nursing program who will help all Bachelor of Nursing students prepare for the licensing examination, and offers career guidance, advising, and mentorship. The goal of this approach is to ensure that incoming students are prepared for the rigors of college and that, when enrolled, they receive the wrap-around support that keeps them engaged and more likely to persist to graduation.

“This substantial investment from the Biden-Harris administration underscores the importance of addressing the critical shortage of nurses in rural communities and Heritage University’s role in helping to fill those gaps,” said Dr. Melissa Hill, Heritage provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

Pathways to Opportunity will focus on Native American, Hispanic, low-income, and first- generation high school and college students. Outreach will target students in the eight high schools in communities surrounding the university’s Toppenish campus and the Yakama Tribal School. Heritage Eagle


Quarter million dollar gift directed to support DACA and DREAMER students

Heritage University received a $250,000 gift from the directors of the Bezos Family Foundation to support the institution’s DACA Emergency and DREAMER Funds. This transformative contribution reflects a commitment to supporting the immediate needs of undocumented students facing unforeseen challenges.

Each year, the Bezos Family Foundation’s Board of Directors chooses non-profit organizations that align with the Foundation’s mission. In selecting Heritage, the Foundation’s directors recognize the university’s work to provide equitable opportunities to children and youth in its communities.

“This gift underscores the understanding that the foundation directors have of challenges undocumented students face if they wish to pursue a college education. DACA and DREAMER students do not qualify for federal financial aid, often creating situations where the cost of attending college is insurmountable,” said Dr. Andrew Sund, Heritage president. “This gift helps level the playing field for students to pursue a college degree regardless of their immigration status.” Heritage Eagle










In Memoriam – Wings Spring 2024

Ed Rousculp

Heritage lost a beloved fixture to the campus community in January when Professor Emeritus of Education Edwin Rousculp passed away.

Rousculp was a Vietnam-era veteran who served four years in the Air Force before he entered college at Wright State University in Ohio. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education and Teaching, and taught middle school in Carlton, Ohio, before he and his wife, Susan, moved to the Yakima Valley. They settled in Toppenish, and he went to work at the Yakama Nation Tribal School.

His tenure at Heritage began in 1983 when he started teaching English in the evenings as an adjunct instructor while still teaching at the Tribal School. He took a brief hiatus from the university when he moved to Pullman, Washington to pursue his graduate studies at Washington State University (WSU). In 1993, he returned to Heritage as a full-time faculty member in the College of Education. Later that year, he was appointed Chair of the Teacher Education Program. He continued to serve in that role until 2005 when he transitioned into the position of Director of the Center for Intercultural Learning and Teaching, where he remained until his retirement in 2022.

“Ed’s commitment to education, unwavering support for our students, and positive impact on colleagues resonate deeply within our hearts. He embodied kindness, patience, generosity, and gentleness, qualities that made him not only an exceptional colleague but a true friend to many,” said Dr. Andrew Sund, Heritage University president. “We are collectively mourning the loss of a remarkable individual. His dedication and passion for Heritage University’s mission have forged a legacy that will endure for years to come.”

Ted Strong

Former Heritage University board member and Yakama Nation tribal elder Taninsh Ted Strong died on January 30. He was 76.

Strong served on the Heritage board from 2003 to 2012 and was a member of the Executive Committee and the Tribal Relations Committee. In 2022, he was among the Heritage’s Honoring Our Elders award recipients.

In addition to his Heritage service, Strong was a leader among the Yakama Nation and an advocate for treaty rights, salmon recovery, water rights and environmental management. He served as the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was a chief judge for the Yakama Nation Tribal Courts, and was director of the Yakama Housing Authority. Most recently, he was the Vice President of Corporate Responsibility for Yakima Chief Hops.


Virginia Beavert

A renowned linguist, author and educator, Dr. Virginia Beavert Tuxámshish passed away in February at the age of 102.

Beavert dedicated her life to revitalizing and preserving indigenous languages, particularly Ichishkiin, also called Sahaptin, which is the traditional language of the Yakama people. She was one of the first instructors in Heritage University’s Ichishkiin language program and was instrumental in building the program into what it is today. In addition, she was the co-author of the Ichishkíin Sínwit Yakama / Yakima Sahaptin Dictionary and author of The Gift of Knowledge/Ttnúwit Átawish Nch’inch’imamí: Reflections on Sahaptin Ways.

In 2015, Beavert was recognized by Heritage as one of the first four recipients of the Honoring Our Elders award.

“Her wisdom, passion, and commitment were instrumental in fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for the rich linguistic diversity that is an integral part of Native American heritage,” said President Sund.

Falling in Love – Wings Spring 2024

You go to college to earn a degree. But sometimes, you also meet the person with whom you want to share your life.

That’s what happened to Heritage alumni Brandon Berk and Anitramarina Reyna, Heber Molina and Carmen Mejia, and Jorge Borunda and Mireya Vazquez.

Today, after attending Heritage, they all have degrees, are working in their chosen fields, and are each happily married to the love of their lives.


The first time Anitramarina Reyna met theman who would become her husband, she feltslightly taken aback.

“If you’ve met Brandon, you know he has astrong, confident handshake – and he’d already perfected his teacher’s voice,” Anitramarina said. “I felt immediately intimidated by this tall, confident guy.”

“I’m just good at hiding my introverted side,” Brandon said.

They were young – both high school seniors at a formal ceremony for the Act Six college scholarships they were receiving, both about to head to Heritage, he as a math major, she pursuing a nursing degree.

Whatever reticence Anitramarina first felt didn’t last. The two soon struck up a close friendship. Both were outgoing and dedicated to their studies, and they found it easy to spend time together.

“We basically lived at Heritage,” Anitramarina said. “We’d get there at 7:00 in the morning and stay through 11:00 at night. “We were always studying, but of course, there was some goofing off to alleviate stress. We’d have lunch, walk, play board games in the Barnhill Fireside Room.”

One winter, during a snowstorm, the two drove to campus early to get there before classes began. Once they arrived, they learned classes were canceled.“We decided to stay,” said Anitramarina. “It was just the two of us, studying in a room in Petrie Hall, with a YouTube video of a fireplace to distract us from the big snowfall outside.”

“Rumor had it,” Anitramarina said, that she may have had a crush on Brandon, even though they were technically just friends. But nothing came of it until 2020, after Anitramarina graduated from Heritage and Brandon, who earned his bachelor’s degree the year before, graduated from Whitworth University with a Master in Teaching.

Once they began dating, their days were full of hiking, kayaking and, soon, regular gatherings with both families.

They got married in the Yakima Valley in August 2023.

Today, they live in Cle Elum, where they both work for the Cle Elum-Roslyn School District. Brandon is a high school math teacher, and Anitramarina is a nurse in the school district. They have two cats, Roo and Mei.

They say the years they spent as “just friends” were a wonderful foundation for their marriage.

“We were best friends at Heritage before we even began pursuing a relationship,” said Anitramarina. “That was huge.”

Their future plans involve moving back to the Yakima Valley, buying a house, and starting a family.

Professionally, Anitramarina wants to continue to make a difference in children’s lives. Brandon imagines a future that includes adjunct teaching at Heritage.

“I’d love to give back to the university that helped shape me,” Brandon said. “And introduced me to the woman who would become my wife.”


They had the same Intro to Sociology course, saw each other around campus, and ultimately worked on student events together. However, Instagram, Snapchat and texting were the initial basis of Heber Molina and Carmen Mejia’s relationship.

What began with sharing comments and thoughts on virtual platforms soon became real, with much of it playing out on the Heritage campus. Heber was a criminal justice major, and Carmen was a social work major. Both have since earned their master’s degrees.

“Besides studying, we’d meet for lunch and sometimes watch movies together. Sometimes, toward the end of the day, we’d play flag football,” Carmen said.

The Heritage campus, where they felt so at home, seemed like the perfect setting for two invitations Heber would make to Carmen. The first came when the Student Government Association (SGA) was hosting a masquerade ball. Heber devised a scavenger hunt to ask Carmen to go with him to the event.

“With the help of some friends, he wrote clues for me to find around campus where we spent a lot of time,” Carmen said. “The last clue led to the library. Heber was waiting for me with flowers and an invitation to the ball.

“When I say Heber is detailed and thoughtful? You see what I mean.”

A couple of years later, Heber outdid himself. Carmen’s sorority organized a scholarship event called “Big Man on Campus.” As a raffle ticket emcee, Carmen called a number Heber “just happened” to have.

“I walked up to the stage and proposed to her in front of the whole crowd, including friends and family,” Heber said.

The couple married in 2018.

Student-focused events were a huge part of their Heritage life. Both the TRIO and Enactus programs gave them the opportunity to travel together. They’ve followed up those trips with some of their own—to the Olympic Peninsula rainforest and the Southwest, usually camping so they can bring their three dogs—Zeus, Atlas, and Kleo—who are family to them. They envision more travel to Mexico and the tropics.

Heber works for Highline Public Schools as a recruitment and retention program manager. Carmen is a student advisor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Having recently purchased their first home in the greater Seattle area, they talked about their dreams for their future.

“We want to raise a family, maybe have our own business, maybe buy land to build our dream home.

“But more than anything,” said Heber, “we plan to continue to love each other.”


Jorge and Mireya Borunda are “opposites” personality-wise, but their values are cut from the same cloth.

They met at Heritage in 2009. Jorge was a computer science major. Mireya majored in business administration. Both were active in Enactus (formerly

Students in Free Enterprise [SIFE]) and recipients of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. Sharing meaningful experiences helped them become friends quickly.

“We were introduced by Leonard Black, who was a business professor and in charge of SIFE,” Mireya said. “He counseled me about school, about our relationship, about life. He is still like family to us.”

In 2010, Jorge asked Mireya to listen to the student address he was asked to give at his commencement. In it, Jorge talked about his experience of being a DREAMer.

“We were both DREAMers,” Mireya said, referring to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) legislation that was introduced in 2010 as a way to give undocumented young people who were brought into the country as minors a pathway to citizenship.

“We both made it through college via private scholarships, and we kept our full-time jobs throughout our studies. We worked really hard.

“What Jorge talked about in his speech really resonated with me and my story. We both had to navigate the same struggle. That speech was a highlight of our time at Heritage.”

By commencement, Jorge had been accepted into his master’s program at the University of Washington. He and Mireya traveled extensively as they fought for the DREAMers Act, which brought them even closer. While the Act never passed, they were able to get some protection by getting DACA status.

Romance had crossed both their minds over the years. But Jorge felt there were so many things on their plate that anything beyond friendship would be challenging.

Ultimately, laughed Mireya: “I needed to make it more formal.”

Before Jorge headed to Seattle, she asked him over coffee if he wanted to be boyfriend and girlfriend.

“I played hard to get,” Jorge smiled. “But after we finished our coffees, I said yes.”

They dated for two years, as Jorge traveled between Seattle and Yakima. In 2012, they decided to get married right after Mireya’s graduation.

Today, the couple lives in Renton, Washington, where Jorge is a functional analyst in Costco’s data and analytics department. Mireya is the manager of Molina Healthcare’s healthcare broker team, advocating for the community and ensuring that Medicare agents follow appropriate guidelines.

“I think people are surprised we connect the way we do, but our life goals are very clear,” Mireya said. “We both value family first, and we always remember where we came from.”

Remembering their struggles, particularly during the second half of college, led the couple to work with Heritage’s advancement team to create a sustainable endowment to support students in their last two years at the university.

“We had so many projects and exams, and we kept our jobs so we could make ends meet,” Mireya said. “We want the endowment to help other students who are up against the same things we were.”

“We feel very strongly that it’s important to do what we can to help others, to pay it forward,” Jorge said. Heritage Eagle

From Farmworker to Pharmacist – Wings Spring 2024

From Farmworker to Pharmacist

Heritage alumna’s story of sacrifice, grit, perseverance, and a dream realized

Heritage alumna Gardenia Contreras-Vazquez is very good at being first. She is the Contreras family’s first born. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, as the valedictorian nonetheless, and the first to earn a bachelor’s degree, the first DACA student to enter Washington State University’s Pharmaceutical program, and the first to graduate. And she is the first Heritage DACA student to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy and return to her hometown to serve her community’s healthcare needs.

While being first comes with its own set of bragging rights, breaking new ground also comes with daunting obstacles that require a strong heart, steady mind and dogged commitment to your goal, traits that Gardenia has in spades.

“I was in middle school when I first started thinking I wanted to work in healthcare. I knew that my immigration status meant I would have to be creative in finding ways to make it all work. But, I never saw these obstacles as roadblocks, just challenges that I’d have to work around.”


Gardenia was born in Michoacán, Mexico. She doesn’t remember much about coming to the United States. She was only two years old when her parents packed up their baby girl and a few meager possessions to make the nearly 2,000-mile journey from their hometown to the US.

The move was risky. They were coming into the country without immigration credentials. However, the potential rewards far outweighed the risks they faced. In the USA, they would find better jobs. Their children could go to school, maybe even college, and they would grow up to have so many more opportunities than either parent ever had.

The young family first landed in California, where they lived for a year or two before heading north and settling in Sunnyside, Washington. Her parents went to work. Her mom went to work in the fruit industry, picking apples and cherries during the harvest and sorting fruit in warehouses. Her dad went to a dairy, milking cows 10 hours a day. While her parents worked, Gardenia and her younger brother and sister, both born after the family arrived in the United States, enjoyed a typical childhood—they went to school, played with friends, got involved in sports and clubs, all the things children do. Even though she looked and acted like every other typical American child, she was far from typical. Gardenia was undocumented.


“I knew I wasn’t like other kids,” said Gardenia. “My parents always told me how important it was to behave and listen. Growing up undocumented, the fear of being deported was always in the back of your mind. You don’t dwell on it as you live your day-to-day life, but you make small adjustments so you don’t draw attention to yourself. You notice when you pull into a gas station, and there is a police car in the parking lot. You always go the speed limit and follow every small detail of the law. You kind of try to blend into the shadows.”

While she felt different, she was far from an outsider. Agriculture is the leading industry in the Yakima Valley. While technology has changed a lot about how crops are grown, harvested and processed, much of the work still depends upon manual labor. Often, that labor is done by immigrants and first-generation Americans, mostly from Mexico.

In the small town of Sunnyside, agriculture is king, directly employing more than a quarter of the community’s population. In comparison, the next largest industry is transportation and warehouses, the bulk of which is tied to ag support and employs another 14% of working adults. The nature of the industry, plus that of humans who tend to settle in areas where there is a familiarity, has shaped Sunnyside into a community where more than 80% of its population are Hispanic, and over a quarter are foreign-born. Among her peers, Gardenia’s story was very familiar.

“Growing up in Sunnyside, I had a lot of similar experiences with my classmates,” she said. “We didn’t come out directly and say, ‘Oh, I’m undocumented,’ or share our immigration status, but we knew our parents were all working in the fields and may be in similar situations. We were 13 or 14 years old, taking care of our younger siblings, cleaning the house, making dinner, helping parents with translation and filling out documents, and pretty much keeping the household running because our parents worked long, hard hours to provide for the family.”

They weren’t the only ones. From time to time, Gardenia would join her mom in the fields and sometimes work alongside her grandfather, who immigrated to the United States after Gardenia and her parents settled in Sunnyside. Though he had adjusted his status due toanother son who was a citizen, it was here, among the workers, that the teenager began to dream of becoming someone who would help people who often fell through the cracks.

“I saw my parents coming home so tired they fell asleep in their chairs. I saw the people in the fields working injured because they were too afraid to go to the doctor. If they did, they wouldn’t fill their prescriptions because the medicine was too expensive or they didn’t understand the gravity of not taking it. I knew something had to be done to help make healthcare more accessible.”

Young Gardenia’s assessment of the need was dead on. Among cultural populations in the United States, Hispanics, particularly those in immigrant households, have one of the highest rates of healthcare inequity. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves: Language and cultural barriers, socioeconomic disparity, a lack of adequate health insurance, predisposed views on healthcare and healthcare providers, immigration status, and fear of deportation are all among the influences that limit access.

While healthcare providers work to counteract these influences, such as hiring translators to assist with language barriers, making real strides involves bringing more Latinx, bilingual providers into the workforce.

“Pharmacists are both the most accessible and the most accessed member of the healthcare team. Traditionally, pharmacists have been local leaders and vital members of their community, and this remains true in rural, underserved, and smaller communities, which are usually served by caring, independent pharmacy teams,” said Joel Thome, PharmD, BCACP, associate professor.

“In areas with a significant Latinx population, Latinx pharmacists play a crucial role in bridging the cultural and language gaps, providing personalized care that respects the community’s unique health beliefs and practices. Their ability to communicate effectively in Spanish and understand the cultural nuances can enhance patient trust, adherence to medication, and ultimately, health outcomes. This is particularly important in addressing health disparities and promoting health equity in these communities.”


Education is something that Gardenia’s parents reinforced in all their kids from the time they were very young. As children, both parents were forced to quit school and go to work to help support their families. Her mother dropped out of high school, but later earned her GED; her father never made it out of elementary school. Still, the two understood that education was vital to their children’s futures.

“My parents always told me, ‘You have to get an education. It is the one thing nobody can ever take away from you.’ They’d tell me I needed to get good grades so I could get scholarships and go to college.”

That is precisely what she did. Her parents signed her up for the Washington State College Bound program when she was in middle school. College Bound is a guaranteed scholarship for low-income students who graduate from high school and enroll in an approved college or university. Gardenia started looking for scholarships during her freshman year and explored ways to earn college credits for free while in high school. Starting her sophomore year, she enrolled in College in the Classroom, giving her college credits for some courses while meeting her high school graduation requirements. For three years, she participated in her school’s science fair. She won a prestigious scholarship to attend Ohio Wesleyan University in her first year. While that scholarship wouldn’t ultimately help her, it would only have paid half of her tuition, and covering the other half as an out-of-state student without access to federal funding assistance was unfeasible; receiving the award was all the encouragement she needed to keep moving forward. By the time she graduated from Sunnyside High School, Gardenia had received enough scholarship support to cover her undergraduate degree, including Heritage’s Dreamers Scholarship.

Finding funding for school was just the start. Being undocumented brought with it a host of other challenges that could derail her dream, like not being able to be legally employed. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama initiated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The action protected young adults who were brought into the country as children and who met specific criteria for deportation and authorized them to work in the country for two years. The action was temporary but renewable. Gardenia’s parents immediately hired an attorney who applied for and got her DACA status. More than anything, this move was perhaps the most critical to Gardenia’s future. Without it, all that happened after earning her bachelor’s degree would not have been possible.

When Gardenia enrolled at Heritage, she knew she knew she wanted to prepare for a healthcare career, but she wasn’t sure about what exactly. It wasn’t until her senior year that she turned her attention towards a career in pharmaceuticals.

“Medical school was super expensive, and finding funding after undergraduate studies is difficult. I saw that WSU had a Doctor of Pharmacy program at PNWU (Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, which is in Yakima),” she said. “I really wanted to help people in my community access better healthcare and recognized that access to medication is critical.”


Gardenia’s application to WSU was about as stellar as they come. As an undergraduate, she was a university ambassador, Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. member, and president of the Medical Sciences Club. She completed research at Heritage University on “Urinalysis: A Comparative Analysis Between Automated and Manual Method.” She graduated from Heritage magna cum laude with two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science, with a minor in Visual Arts. It was during the interview when Gardenia really nailed it! She spoke about her experiences growing up and how they shaped her perception of the need for people with her background in healthcare. She talked about earning her degree and staying in her hometown to work directly with the people who needed her help the most.

“After the interview, I was sitting in the waiting room when one of the interviewers came out to talk to me. She told me they loved what I had to say and wanted to offer me a position in the upcoming class but didn’t know if they were legally allowed to do so because of my status. She said they had to consult with the state attorney to ensure I could participate in the program.”

Gardenia left with what seemed like another barrier in front of her. A few weeks later, she was at Heritage in the Admissions office working when she got the call: SHE WAS IN!

“I remember stepping outside because I wasn’t sure what the state attorney had told the school. Then the person on the other line simply said, ‘How would you like to be a Coug?’ I was in shock! I couldn’t believe that this was actually happening!”

A few months later, in fall 2019, Gardenia started what would be a grueling four years of study. Just before she started, she took a part-time pharmacy assistant job at Rite Aid. Not only did this give her some insight into her future career, but it was also part of the initial requirements of the degree program. The program curriculum was extremely challenging; anything below 80% was considered a fail. Students had three tries to pass if they didn’t meet that requirement, but that would mean they had to study for a past lesson on top of studying the current lesson.

In May 2023, the former undocumented immigrant who worked alongside her family picking fruit and dreamed of a life helping people just like her live healthier lives was officially a pharmacist. She graduated with a Doctor of Pharmacy from WSU. In many ways, Gardenia’s life has come full circle. The child whose family risked everything to give her a chance at a life better than their own, the teenager who dreamed of helping farmworkers have better access to healthcare, the young woman who hit roadblocks and said, “What else,” instead of giving up is living the life she dreamed of having. Today, she is a pharmacist at Sunnyside Hospital and an essential part of the patient care team.

“Pharmacists are one of the most accessible medical providers in the community. Being bilingual, I can talk to patients in a language they understand so that I can fully explain their medications and treatment. I also understand the financial concerns that so many of our patients face. I help them look at available resources to pay for their medications. And, I feel like there is a level of trust that I have with patients because I come from where so many of these people are today,” she said.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Wow! I can’t believe this,’” she said. “I have my degrees. I have my career. I’m helping people in my community. It’s surreal to see how far you come. It wasn’t just me who did this. I got here because of the support of my family, my friends, the faculty/staff who believed in me, everyone around me who helped me along the way, and the scholarship donors and committees for taking a chance and believing in me. I also had four very special individuals who co-signed my loans, without whom I may not have been able to take out my graduate school loans. I definitely was blessed with a strong support system; I wouldn’t be here without them.” Heritage Eagle



Gardenia’s story is very familiar on college campuses across America. Last August, the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and American Immigration Council released a report estimating that more than 408,000 undocumented students are enrolled in postsecondary education across the country. Unlike Gardenia, most do not have DACA status.

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It is an executive order issued by President Obama that provided temporary yet renewable protections from deportation for young people brought into the country as children. It also gave recipients the ability to work in the country legally. What it was not was a pathway to citizenship. At its height, more than 800,000 young people had DACA status.

In 2017, it was announced that DACA would be phased out. New applications for deferred status would no longer be accepted, and renewals would only be accepted through October 5 of that year. The resulting legal maneuverings from those on both sides of the issue brought forth ping-ponging injunctions that renewed, then halted, and partially reinstated the program several times over three years.

Behind the political and legal maneuvering, hundreds of thousands of young people were left in limbo. The most recent decision happened in September 2023. A federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA was unconstitutional and upheld the block to reinstate the program. Currently, no new applications are being accepted, and current recipients must reapply for protection every two years. Missing the deadline has dire consequences; the person would no longer be protected from deportation, would be unable to legally work in the US, and could not reapply. Appeals to the ruling are in the works.

While the DACA saga has been in motion, another piece of legislation has been trying to make its way through Congress. It has similar guidelines for eligibility but differs in that it provides a pathway to citizenship. That legislation is the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. At least 11 versions of the DREAM Act have been introduced to Congress in the last 20 years. The most recent iteration is the bipartisan DREAM Act 2023. This legislation would tie the pathway to citizenship for young people brought into the United States as minors to education, work, and military service and would apply to those with DACA status and those without. However, despite its bipartisan construction, it has not received enough support to become law.

As politicians continue their debates, immigrant workers, their families and the businesses and communities who depend upon them wait in uncertainty. The impact of these, or any other similar legislation, has implications that branch out much further than the undocumented person seeking legal status.

Immigrant workers play an integral role in the American economy. Some industries, like construction and agriculture, rely heavily on foreign-born workers, particularly in lower-skilled labor positions. In agriculture, estimates of how many undocumented workers are employed on farms and in the fields go as high as 50% of the labor force.

On an even larger scale, undocumented workers infuse the economy to the tune of more than a trillion dollars of spending power and nearly $10 billion in federal, state, and local taxes annually.

So, where does the current state of affairs leave undocumented students today? Coming behind the wave of DACA students who had some relief are hundreds of thousands of Dreamers whose futures are murky.

“So many of our young people are trapped in this web of uncertainty,” said Dr. Andrew Sund, president of Heritage University. “They’ve been raised here, educated here, are part of the fabric of our communities. They have great potential and a work ethic as strong as anyone’s but face daunting obstacles that block access to the resources to reach that potential.”

Sund points out that one of the most significant roadblocks is finding the money to pay for post-secondary education.Undocumented students, even those with DACA protections, do not qualify for any form of federal funding. Washington State has programs to help undocumented students pay for their education, including the Washington State College Grant and the College Bound Scholarship. Still, this funding alone isn’t nearly enough to cover college costs. Scholarships are critical to bridge the gap that is left after state funding is applied. Heritage has several scholarships that DACA and Dreamer students can qualify to receive, including the full-tuition Dreamer Scholarship. Most of these funds are made possible by contributions made to the university by generous supporters.

For those lucky enough to have DACA status, the back and forth of contrary legal decisions and worry about what will happen next adds anxiety on top of the typical day-to-day stressors of college life. Plus, the expense of legal and application fees for already cash-strapped students adds to the anxiety.

Heritage established the DACA Emergency Fund in 2017 when students were scrambling to manage expiring DACA statuses in the face of a shortened renewal application deadline. It provides financial assistance to help students cover the cost of application fees, eliminating this potential barrier.

“We want students to know there are people out there that believe in them and are here to support them,” said Sund. “It is essential that they don’t put their futures on hold and wait until elected officials in Washington DC devise a permanent solution. There are resources available and people who will help them get the education they need to secure their future.

“We need all our young people to be educated. We need them in our schools, businesses, social services, hospitals, and clinics to fill critical roles that benefit all of us. Our local, state and federal agencies benefit from the income their tax dollars bring through their employment and their increased purchasing power when they work in positions with higher wages,” he said. “Moreover, we need the stability that comes when our young people can plan for their futures with confidence and certainty.”

To help support the Dreamers Scholarship or the DACA Emergency Fund, contact the Advancement Office at 509-865-8587 or advancement@hertiage.edu. Or make your gift online at heritage.edu/giving. Heritage Eagle

Bringing the Real World to the Classroom – Wings Spring 2024

Heritage adjunct faculty are critical to the university’s programs – but more than filling a need, they bring vigor and perspective.

“Because I love it!”

In his own words, that’s why adjunct marketing instructor Aaron Welling teaches at Heritage University.

It is not an uncommon sentiment among the university’s adjunct faculty. Educated, highly experienced individuals often join Heritage’s adjunct faculty because they’re excited about their subject matter.

They also bring valuable real-world experience to their classrooms and to the students they teach.

“Many adjunct faculty hold full-time positions in addition to teaching, so they draw on their work experiences,” said Melissa Hill, Ph.D., provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. “Through their presence and instruction, students gain a deeper understanding of what to expect in their discipline.

“Heritage’s adjunct instructors bring a wonderful combination of their years of expertise, current experiences, and an energy that really serves their students.”


Adjunct professors at Heritage comprise more than half the university’s faculty, making them critical to the success of its programs.

“There are about 80 adjunct faculty members teaching at Heritage at any given moment, and the list of what they bring to the student experience is just as long,” Hill said.

“Our criminal justice program has adjuncts who work as judges and police officers. In education, students learn from instructors who teach in area schools, some are even Heritage alums. Business courses are taught by executives and entrepreneurs. These are just a few examples.”

The instructors profiled here represent just a few of such examples.

Melissa Andrewjeski has held key positions with the state’s Department of Corrections for more than 30 years, including serving as superintendent over the largest adult male prison facility in the state.

Social work instructor Jacob Campbell was instrumental in developing and instituting the social worker role in his school district’s special education classrooms.

Education instructor John Kerr has received awards and accolades for his many years of teaching.

Nursing instructor Shameka Phillips was a solo provider in a busy, rural North Carolina clinic, a most “challenging and rewarding position.”

Business instructor Welling has developed marketing strategies for numerous Fortune 100 companies.

“When you’re out there executing theory and strategies, you have insight into what matters, as well as what happens when you learn you would have done something differently,” Hill said. “That’s a really valuable thing to bring to our students.”

In nursing, said Phillips, current examples help students connect what they’re learning to what they’ll see during clinicals and as practicing nurses.

“We can offer guidance on navigating the current workforce environment and other career-related pursuits,” Phillips said.

Sometimes, students even get the opportunity to visit their instructor’s workplace, as students in Andrewjeski’s criminal justice class do almost every semester. They tour Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, what Andrewjeski describes as “a safe, humanistic facility where people have opportunities to become better neighbors.”

“It’s helped students identify career goals and a path for their future, whether in criminal justice or social work or both.”


Between the current perspective of adjunct faculty and the eagerness of the students who learn from them, adjunct instructors say there’s a positive energy in their classrooms.

Kerr brings the lively approach he takes with his daytime students at Granger High School into his evening classroom.

“I love the people and the students, and my classroom at Heritage is similar – cheerful, low-stress, and highly supportive,” Kerr said.

“If you really enjoy your work, that energy comes with you.”

Welling tries to make his classroom similarly enjoyable and engaging, livening things up with stories about companies he’s done marketing for and practical applications to what’s happening in the world today.

“We’ve talked about Southwest Airlines forgetting to put money into operations and watching their system melt on the busiest travel day of the year,” Welling said. “And Elon Musk taking a tried and tested brand that people love and changing it to something as esoteric as X.

“It’s engaging to talk about what’s happening right now and what we would do if we were in their place.”

In Phillips’s nursing classes, she and her students interact “like a big family.”

“We generally start each class with a mood check- in, a statement about this being a space of respect, equity, and compassion, that we will center active listening and mindful communication in our interactions with each other, staff, faculty, and others we may encounter.

“It helps us begin the day’s content with mindfulness.”


Campbell teaches a class where students continue from the first semester to the next. At the end of the first semester, he asks students to reflect on the past semester and to share thoughts about the semester ahead.

“One student told me, ‘I like this class a lot, mostly because you make the environment feel like a safe space… It made me feel like my feelings and thoughts were important and also allowed me to think deeper.’ This is what I want,” Campbell said. “Class needs to feel safe and rigorous – that’s what allows students to grow and learn.” Heritage Eagle


SHAMEKA PHILLIPS, PH.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine/Seattle Children’s Research Institute. She is a first-generation college student who earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing with university and nursing honors, a Master of Science in Nursing— Family Primary Care, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Phillips joined Heritage’s nursing faculty in 2023.




JOHN KERR teaches science and career and technical education (CTE) in the Granger School District. He has advanced proficiency in Spanish and intermediate proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. He is a Tri-Cities Regional Crystal Apple Award winner and was the ESD 123 Regional Teacher of the Year in 2011. Kerr joined Heritage’s education faculty in 2022.








AARON WELLING is Co-Founder & CEO of Sonar Insights, a market research and strategy consulting firm based in Richland, Wash. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Spanish degree and a communications minor. He graduated with a master’s in business administration in international management from Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of Business. Welling joined Heritage’s business and accounting faculty in 2018.






MELISSA ANDREWJESKI is the Assistant Secretary of the Women’s Prison Division for the Washington State Department of Corrections and is responsible for the division’s strategic vision and leadership. She has a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University, focusing on social work and a minor in chemical dependency counseling, and a master’s degree in social work from Walla Walla University. Andrewjeski joined Heritage’s Criminal Justice faculty in 2009.





JACOB CAMPBELL, PH.D., is a social worker in the special education department of the Pasco School District. He also runs his own business, Locus of Transformation, which supervises licensed social workers and provides consulting. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Eastern Washington University and graduated with his Ph.D. in Transformative Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Campbell joined Heritage’s social work faculty in 2013. Heritage Eagle





Grit! – Wings Spring 2024


The path to college doesn’t always follow a straight line. Sometimes, promising students, those who are doing the work and bringing home good grades, hit road bumps that send them off track. That’s what happened to 24-year-old Brian Solano. He was a good kid who studied hard and dreamed of going to college. But during his senior year, crippling anxiety got the better of him. Racing thoughts kept him from paying attention in class. He started missing school, fell behind, and ended up dropping out of high school.

Other times, good people end up in unfortunate circumstances. This is 28-year-old Zachary Minthorn’s experience. He was born into a family where drug and alcohol addiction were pervasive. He was placed into foster care at seven and moved from place to place until he was 14 and returned to his family. His home situation hadn’t improved, and he began spending more and more time staying with friends. He was kicked out of his house at the beginning of his senior year. At 17 years old, he was homeless, couch surfing from place to place, and in full-on survival mode. He dropped out of high school and turned his attention toward finding work to support himself.

For every person who enrolls in Heritage University’s high school equivalency program, HEP Alliance (HEP), there are stories like Brian’s and Zach’s. Educations that were halted by decisions made to leave school, some for good reasons, others made with the mercuriality of youth. Regardless of the circumstances that led someone to drop out of high school, HEP is here to provide a second chance.

HEP Alliance is a federally funded program that helps students earn their High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED), commonly called a GED. The free program is open to students 16 years old or older who are assessed at or above the 9th-grade education level and from households where they or their family members have worked in migrant or seasonal farm work. This includes any activity related to fisheries, hunting, and the production of crops, dairy products, poultry, livestock or forestry.

When students enter the program, they are first given an assessment to determine their current academic level and how much instructional support they need. Classes are offered in either English or Spanish. Up to 80 hours of instruction is provided within four subject areas: language arts, social studies, sciences, and mathematics. The courses, materials, and one-on-one tutoring are all part of the program, which is funded by the U.S. Office of Education’s Office of Migrant Education (OME). Students who test high enough can opt to forgo any classes and go directly to taking the HSED exams.

Heritage’s HEP Alliance has a remarkable success rate. Since its inception in 2004, roughly 3,000 students have earned their high school equivalent diploma. The number of students served each year fluctuates depending upon the grant parameters. Currently, it serves 100 students annually. Of these, 90% continued their education, enrolling in some form of postsecondary, technical or vocational schooling. What brings students to HEP Alliance is as varied as the people the program serves.

“We have students who are single mothers who want better employment and want to serve as role models for their kids. We’ve had unhoused students facing family and personal struggles who are seeking better opportunities. We serve regardless of an individual’s economics, culture, or language. We are here for all of them,” said Jennifer Renteria-Lopez, HEP Alliance program director.


Solano came to HEP three years after he dropped out of high school. He had been working in a video store and in the fields with his parents during the summer.

“I’d get up and go to work in the fields from 5:00 in the morning until 1:00 in the afternoon. Then I’d go home, shower and go to my other job at the video store,” he said.

Things were going well for Solano. He was getting help to manage his anxiety, and he liked his work at the video store. He knew he needed to get his GED and tried a couple of times, but it just never worked out. Then, he had a relapse with his anxiety, and he quit his job.

“In an odd way, I think that this relapse was a blessing,” he said.

Solano took some time off to concentrate on getting healthy. When he felt strong enough, he decided to try one more time to get his GED.

That is when he found his way to HEP Alliance. The program was only a few miles away from his home, and when he went in to get more information, he saw a familiar face. The older sister of his sister’s childhood friend was there. He immediately felt comfortable, and, with her help, he started the enrollment process. Solano aced the assessment test and could have immediately taken the HSED exam. But he elected to sit in on a few math courses first to refresh his memory. A few weeks later, he took and passed the exams. Solano was the proud recipient of a high school equivalency diploma.


There is no sugar-coating Minthorn’s origin story. He was born into the hopelessness of poverty and addiction and grew up in instability. School is far from being a priority when you are just trying to survive. He dropped out of high school at the start of his senior year.

Minthorn spent the next several years taking on odd jobs here and there and floating from couch to couch. One day, he ran into a childhood friend.

“His family had always been good to me,” he said. “His mom told me, ‘Come and fish for us.’ I took them up on their offer. I think that was when things started to change for me.”

Minthorn started to look beyond odd jobs and tried for more steady employment that could lead to a career. He began to train to be a mechanic, but his heart wasn’t in it. He spent some time working in security and eventually became a logger working for the Yakama Nation. While he liked logging initially, he began to get restless.

“It wasn’t fun doing the same thing every day. It was extremely physical work, and I didn’t feel like I was achieving anything,” he said. “I heard about people getting their GED, and based on that, they were able to get better jobs. They were no longer stuck.”

Minthorn found his way to HEP Alliance and had his high school equivalency diploma in less than a month.


“The beauty of having a high school equivalency program tied to a university is how easily students can transition from earning their diploma to being enrolled in college,” said Renteria-Lopez. More than simply preparing students to pass the HSED exams, HEP counsels students and encourages them to think about what is next. Where they can, they help them with their transition to the next phase in their education.

“Students don’t always come to us with a plan,” said Renteria-Lopez. “Our program is a launching pad for our graduates. They come here and have some success, which encourages them to think bigger and do more.”

Solano and Minthorn both credit HEP for being the catalyst that got them enrolled in Heritage.

“When I started, my only goal was to get my GED,” said Minthorn. “Being here at Heritage is a direct result of coming to the HEP program and being told, ‘You’re ready to go to college.’ That wasn’t anything I ever thought of doing before.”

Solano, on the other hand, had always dreamed of going to college. Before things went south in high school, he planned to attend a major university and study agriculture. When he got his equivalent diploma, he knew that college was next.

“The lady I knew at HEP said, ‘You’re going to college, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yep!’” he said. “She suggested Heritage. She showed me the application and went over the majors that were offered. I saw the medical laboratory science (MLS) major and remembered how much I liked the medical biology class I took in high school. She walked me over to Admissions and I started the application process.”

Today, Solano is a junior double majoring in MLS and biology. He is an Eagles Scholar getting ready to enter his first summer research experience.

Minthorn is halfway through his sophomore year and is majoring in environmental science. In January, he was part of a team of students who traveled to South America for a research project at the Costa Rica International Research Experience. He was recently accepted into Heritage’s Crescent program, which provides mentorship and access to high-value research opportunities, and he is preparing for his first summer research project.

“I am still surprising myself,” said Minthorn. “I never saw myself as an academic. I never would have thought I’d be in college and have a GPA above 3.0.

“This whole experience, going to HEP, getting my GED, and coming to Heritage, has been life-changing. I went from being hopeless and having no faith or trust in anyone to being someone who isn’t afraid to lean on people and have trust in others. My entire perspective on life has changed.”

For both men, it is important that they stay in the Yakima Valley after they graduate and share their stories so that others can be inspired to make changes in their own lives.

“At the end of the day, I know that I’m not just doing this for myself; I’m doing it for my people, for all of us,” said Minthorn. “I know there are others out there with stories worse than mine. I hope those people can hear my story and say, ‘If he can do it, maybe I can too. Maybe it isn’t hopeless.’”

“I want people to know that no matter how old they are and no matter what they are doing, there is time to make a change, to get your GED, and earn a degree. I will be 26 years old when I graduate. I’m in classes with people well into their 30s and 40s,” said Solano. “It’s about buckling down and doing the work you need to do to get to where you want to go.”

Minthorn and Solano are prime examples of how important second chances can be for a person and a community.

“There is such a stigma associated with dropping out of high school. But, decisions made when someone is in their teens should not dictate the trajectory of the rest of their lives,” said Retineria-Lopez.

“HEP is about second chances. It’s about helping people reclaim their lives and build the opportunities they deserve. These students are among the most dedicated to their education. They understand what is at stake because they’ve lived so long with the struggle that not having a diploma brings them, and they are determined to do something different.They are all truly an inspiration.” Heritage Eagle