7 Dec 2017

Growing Graduates - Tree Fruit Industry and Heritage’s Shared Mission

Growing Graduates - Tree Fruit Industry and Heritage’s Shared Mission

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

Dr. Melissa Hill, assistant vice president of student affairs at Heritage, walked into a restaurant near campus one day to get her morning coffee and ran into a student she recognized. Striking up a conversation, she asked her if she was grabbing breakfast. To her surprise, the young woman laughed and said, “No, more like lunch.” In fact, she had already been up for hours working in the fields across the street. At that moment, Hill remembers thinking, “These students work harder than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Gardenia ContrerasWhile many college students race from class to study groups, to the library or back home for dinner after a full day of classes, a good number of Heritage students have no such luxury. Homework, lab reports and reading have to wait as they instead attend to family responsibilities or jobs. Sometimes they are translating mail or rental agreements into Spanish for their parents, or talking with a doctor, landlord or principal on their behalf. Others are racing to a full- or part-time job after school and on weekends. Some also have family members who wonder why so much time and effort is going toward college when they could be working more or supporting the family in other ways.

And that, in a nutshell, is a reason Washington Apple Education Foundation (WAEF) scholarships can be life-changing. It’s not hyperbole. The charitable arm of the tree fruit industry, WAEF has provided post-secondary education scholarships to the children of tree fruit industry employees since 2001, making educational opportunities more accessible. More than 600 individuals and businesses voluntarily donate to WAEF because they believe in that mission, according to Jennifer Witherbee, WAEF’s executive director.

In 2017, 238 students received $1 million in scholarship monies from WAEF, and 11 were Heritage students. Scholarships range from $1,000 to some that cover 100% of educational expenses; many are renewable year after year.

“Our focus is to follow a student through to degree completion,” said Witherbee, who said that multiple scholarships can be combined to pay for two- or four-year universities as well as technical school degrees. “We would love those students to come back to the tree fruit industry one day if it’s right for them. But more importantly, we truly want to see them fulfill their own goals and dreams in whatever industry they choose.”

Full Time Student, worker, Mom

Tina Jimenez Tina Jimenez is one such student. She works at Washington Fruit & Produce Co. as a sales assistant. She never expected to be back working in the tree fruit industry. As a child, she saw how hard her parents worked in the apple and pear orchards and thought one day she would have a career in a totally different industry. After attending community college and earning her associate degree in business, she transferred to Heritage on the recommendation of her sister, who had earned a nursing degree at Heritage and spoke highly of the faculty. It was around that time that she also began working at Washington Fruit. When the owner learned she was a Heritage student, he encouraged her to apply for the company’s scholarship through WAEF. He even adjusted the criteria so employees themselves, as well as their children, could apply, and for that Jimenez is grateful.

With the WAEF scholarship as well as others from Heritage, about 80% of her college costs were funded for both years she attended the university, alleviating the financial strain. Being a full-time student, full-time employee, and also a full-time mom to her toddler son was a difficult balancing act, and there were many days she left the house for work at 6 a.m. and didn’t get home until 10 p.m. after her classes ended. The scholarship helped lessen that burden.

“I always wanted to go to college, but I had to work to keep a roof over our heads, so college was always secondary. When I received the WAEF scholarship, I couldn’t believe there was something like this out there. I was blown away and so happy.”

Jimenez graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from Heritage in December 2016, and she loves her job at Washington Fruit. She said it is interesting working on the business side of the tree fruit industry—and she sees now how important agriculture is to the state and to the world.

“I have a new and different perspective now,” said Jimenez. “My parents are extremely proud. They wanted us to be educated and successful. It’s all they ever wanted for us.”

Witherbee says about 80% of WAEF’s scholarship recipients are first-generation college students, as Jimenez was, so opening up their world to higher education is very profound, impacting the whole family.

Hill agrees: “Education doesn’t just change the life of the student, it changes the entire family. Graduates don’t just contribute earning potential; they also become a role model to others, including their siblings. They begin to see the world through a much broader and wider lens.”

In fact, Jimenez said her sister’s glowing comments about the Heritage faculty and their devotion to seeing students excel was exactly why she chose Heritage herself.

“She had a great experience,” said Jimenez, “and I wanted to experience that as well.”

Strong Support Networks for Students

Laura Quintero MartinezBoth WAEF and Heritage embrace individuality and have a passion to nurture these students, who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to become leaders in their communities.

“There is an intimacy in our learning environment,” agrees Hill. “We have a high-touch, early-alert system for our students that includes advising, free tutoring, peer mentoring and a small, tight-knit culture. I sometimes have to encourage students and tell them that it’s time to go. They’ve found a very comfortable and safe place here at Heritage, but they have to take their knowledge out into the world.”

Heritage’s supportive environment dovetails perfectly with WAEF’s own scholarship network. The organization doesn’t just hand funding to the students and stop there; it has built a framework that includes regular luncheons and get-togethers with former scholarship winners and community mentors, financial aid sessions for freshmen, seminars on topics like budgeting, social and professional skills, networking, job shadowing and internship opportunities. At one of these gatherings, a former scholarship winner spoke to the current recipients. He noted how his smooth hands were so different from his dad’s weathered, rough hands. His parting words to them were, “His hands look like that so my hands can look like this.”

“Their parents have had hard jobs, working in the elements,” acknowledged Witherbee, “and this is what their hard work allows the kids to do.”


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