28 Jun 2017

35 Year of Changing Lives

35 Year of Changing Lives

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

In the middle of hop fields in the heart of Washington’s rural, agricultural communities, the last thing most people would expect to find is a thriving college campus. Nonetheless, here sits Heritage University, a private, nonprofit college that has been helping people in the Yakima Valley change their lives for 35 years.

“I say it all the time. This is a very special place,” said Dr. John Bassett, Heritage University president. “Anyone who comes here and visits our campus and our students walk away with a great appreciation for the human spirit and the power of education to transform lives.”

The Heritage story is one of grit, luck and a whole lot of hard work. It was in the 1970s when two Yakama women, Violet Lumley Rau and Martha Yallup, took it upon themselves to seek out a university that would agree to provide college credit courses on-site in Toppenish, Washington, which is located about 15 miles south of Yakima. They found their partner in Fort Wright College, a Catholic university located in Spokane that was run by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. But, by the early 1980s, a failing economy and competition from larger schools forced Fort Wright to close its doors. Lumley Rau and Yallup refused to let their community go without access to higher education. They convinced Dr. Kathleen Ross, snjm, who was the provost at Fort Wright, to join them in starting a brand-new university.

“It was impossible to say ‘no’ to Martha and Violet,” said Ross, founding president of Heritage University. “They were so passionate about building opportunities and about building a university where people from all cultures would come together to learn and build shared experiences.”

Together, Ross, Yallup and Lumley Rau were an unstoppable force. They convinced a handful of business leaders to join the founding board of what was then Heritage College. When seemingly insurmountable hurdles got in their way, they jumped them—like the time Ross found a loophole in the Department of Education regulations that makes a college less than two years old ineligible to provide federal financial aid to its students.


“A school that was sold to another organization could continue to access federal money for its students,” said Ross. “So we bought Fort Wright for a dollar. And money was so tight in the early days that we barely had even that dollar.”

From the beginning, Heritage was a place unlike any other university. It was founded specifically to serve students for whom going to college seemed as distant a dream as walking on the moon. The students were, for the most part, individuals whose lives made it impossible for them to go away to college. They were adults who had struggled to make ends meet with only a high school education. Many had family obligations that eant they couldn’t simply put life on hold while they pursued a dream. Almost all were minorities, mostly Native American and Hispanic.

The early years were pretty rough for the fledgling college. Classes were held in a former elementary school with heating and air-conditioning that was iffy at best. At times, faculty and staff delayed cashing their paychecks so that the university could weather lean times.

Martha Yallup

“There was such a sense of us all being in this thing together,” said Ross.

While a lot has changed since those early years, the best of what Heritage started with remains today, said Bassett.

“It took a lot of grit and a healthy dose of faith on behalf of our founding mothers, Violet, Martha and Kathleen, as well as on our early students, to get Heritage off the ground and to prosper,” he said. “You find this same tenacity and sense of community in the students, faculty and staff on this campus today.”

Over the course of 35 years, Heritage has grown into a thriving campus situated on 48 acres. The university boasts 17 permanent buildings—five of which have opened in the past three years. Academic degree offerings have grown from a handful to more than 40, including undergraduate programs in business and accounting, social work, education, environmental and health sciences, criminal justice, and pre-engineering, and graduate programs in education, English language arts, medical sciences and physician assistant studies. And from its initial student body of just 85, Heritage is now the academic home for some 1,100 students. All totaled, so far the university has helped more than 8,500 graduates build opportunities for themselves and their families.

“It took a lot of really smart, hardworking, dedicated and generous people, who gave not only financially but of their time, talent and guidance, to help make what was a fervently held dream a reality.” opportunities for themselves and their families.

“When I look back at the past 35 years, I cannot help but marvel at what has grown up here in the most unlikely of places,” said Sister Kathleen. “When Martha and Violet convinced me to join them in this endeavor, I could never have imagined what Heritage University is today. It took a lot of really smart, hardworking, dedicated and generous people, who gave not only financially but of their time, talent and guidance, to help make what was a fervently held dream a reality. It was a dream that grew out of necessity, not vanity or whimsy. And those are the dreams that we cannot ignore.”


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