Encouraging The Discouraged

Encouraging The Discouraged
An HSI, Heritage University serves a population that most other institutions have essentially written off as nothing more than farm laborers and service workers.

By Lydia Lum

Erika Romero got a chilly answer in high school when she asked about her chances of being admitted to college.

“Don’t bother applying,” the counselor said. “If White people can’t score well on the SAT, then Hispanics like you sure won’t.”

So Romero, who emigrated with her family from Mexico as a teenager, did exactly that — not apply.

She didn’t give college another thought until a recruiter from Heritage University called to ask if she finished her application.

The recruiter insisted she set aside her counselor’s words and apply to the private, open-enrollment school in Washington state’s agricultural valley. Romero was, the recruiter said, like the typical student at Heritage — a first-generation college-goer who was actually discouraged from seeking higher education.

Currently, Romero is a senior at Heritage working on a double major in accounting and finance. She plans to become a certified public accountant.
For better or worse, Romero’s profile is one that is oft-heard at the 1,346-student commuter university, which serves a region and a population that other institutions have historically ignored and essentially written off as nothing more than farm laborers and service workers. Indeed, the 25-year-old school in south central Washington, about 165 miles southeast of Seattle, is surrounded by vast fields of apples, hops, cherries, apricots and asparagus worked by many of its students and their families.

“This place needs Heritage,” says Bertha Ortega, vice president for external and academic affairs who grew up in the town of Toppenish, where Heritage is located. “People here are smart enough to go to college, but they historically didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. For so long, they would finish high school and that was it. Parents were excited if their children landed secretarial work because that meant working indoors and hopefully less than a 12-hour day.”

Len Black, assistant professor of business administration, adds, “Very few of my students have even heard of the SAT, much less taken it. So very early in their lives, judgments are made about their future.”

Black and his colleagues easily rattle off examples of success stories. A graduate who landed a marketing job in Connecticut for the Campbell Soup Co., another who became a recruiter for Macy’s Inc. and one who became a management trainee for Costco Warehouse Corp. in Mexico.

Among students, 53 percent are Hispanic and 11 percent American Indian. About 95 percent qualify for federal financial aid. The average age is 26. Women make up 76 percent of the enrollment, with single mothers quite common. Heritage runs a licensed daycare and preschool to accommodate students who want to enroll their children.

While the Hispanic-serving institution is private, its tuition at $9,000 a year is within reach of its working-class clientele. Its closest neighbors include not only crop fields and laborers but also the Yakama Nation, which used to own the land where Heritage now stands. Heritage’s founding and only president is one of the school’s staunchest donors and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner.

Bridging the Gap
The university grew out of an outreach program in Toppenish in the early 1980s, sponsored by the private, Spokane-based Fort Wright College. Financial problems forced Fort Wright and its outlying programs to close, so college vice president Kathleen Ross was dispatched to Toppenish to share the bad news. Toppenish residents, however, insisted their access to higher education continue, especially important for its growing minority population, including long-established American Indians. They decided to grow their own school, even voting Ross president amid her own doubts over the feasibility of the whole idea.

During the 1981-82 school year, the last year that Fort Wright operated, Ross and a handful of organizers planted the seeds for Heritage, most importantly applying for accreditation and having the federal financial aid records and infrastructure transferred from Fort Wright. By the fall semester of 1982, Heritage was in business on its own with a few dozen students whose average age was 37, recalls Ortega, one of the founders along with Ross.

School finances were so tight, though, that some months the founders decided to forgo paychecks to pay the utilities to keep the heat on in the winter. Some of the founders even considered using their homes as collateral to secure bank loans to raise more cash. Eventually, the finances stabilized and the school gained accreditation. Donors and foundations noticed the focus on minority students and began to contribute. When Ross won the MacArthur grant in 1997, Heritage gained even more financial support. Academics gained steam, too. Today, its top five majors are education, social work, nursing, business administration and the sciences. While Heritage remained largely unknown in most of the state, it was quietly pumping teachers and social workers into Toppenish and nearby towns.

A $15 million construction project began last year to build 13 new classrooms and labs and a meeting hall, which will let the campus community move out of the trailers it has occupied for so long.

Unfortunately, a physical move can’t guarantee a shift in confidence and mental outlook. Many Heritage students not only share Romero’s high school experience of being discouraged from going to college, but they have never overcome the mindset. Of the first-time freshmen who enrolled at Heritage in the fall of 2000, nearly half dropped out. Only 10 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree by 2006 and only another 10 percent had done so by 2007.

Professor of history Ryan Booth finds the dedication of many students humbling. Because many don’t have home computers, they have to take extra steps to crank out term papers and assignments by either working in the school’s academic center or at their workplace.

“I think about my whiny self getting up for my 8 a.m. class,” he says. “I drive to school in the comfort of my own car, walk a block or two across campus and there I am. Many of my students have two jobs and are raising a family.”

Furthermore, the limited worlds of the students became apparent to Booth when a student once dropped by the two-bedroom house he shares with his dog.

“He couldn’t believe one person could live in such a big space,” Booth says. “These students aren’t aiming to be Bill Gates. They’re just aiming to be middle class.”

Romero, 27, gave so little thought to her future as a teenager that when she started college in 1999, she explored a career in computer science — only because she heard of people earning a healthy living during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. She eventually switched her major as she grew to enjoy preparing tax returns for the indigent through a community project.

Because so few Heritage students were ever considered college-track, the faculty spend many hours bridging the gap.

“They haven’t had the core curriculum like four years of high school English, two years of a foreign language,” Booth says. “We work our tails off. The kid who walks in here is different than the kid in the graduation line.”

Heritage faculty don’t hesitate to make their students’ experiences parallel to their counterparts at larger, name-brand schools. Black introduced the Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) group on campus to supplement what he taught in class. With college chapters in more than 40 countries, SIFE encourages students to create economic opportunities by teaching others about free-market economies.

Heritage students participate year-round in community projects, such as a chicken starter initiative in rural Mexico where the land is dry and the farmers are poor. SIFE issued loans to the farmers in the form of roosters and chicks so the farmers could raise the chickens and sell the eggs to avoid having to leave their families behind while they went to the city to work.

In competitions against other schools, Heritage students deliver presentations about their projects and report on results. Judges are typically corporate CEOs. Last spring, the Heritage team placed fourth nationally and came in second in 2006 — accomplishments that Black and his students take pride in. Black speaks of their achievements as a David versus Goliath story, since they went up against some of the most competitive teams from schools like Pepperdine and Texas A&M universities.

Not surprisingly, many Heritage students lack experience in public speaking prior to SIFE and are at first intimidated, Black says. So he spends many hours trying to distract them during rehearsals — rattling his car keys, making funny faces, throwing things in their direction. To get them used to a microphone he makes them hold soft drink cans while practicing.

The competitions instill confidence in students but also let them network. Between rounds at competitions, judges go out of their way to give the students business cards, encouraging them to seek jobs at their companies.
Romero, now the SIFE president at Heritage, says SIFE, like the university, has given her a chance to grow. “I used to get nervous and sweat whenever I had to present something,” she says. “But I had so much in common with the other SIFE members, their family backgrounds. They started off shy, too. That really helped me.

“Besides, White people get nervous in front of groups, too!”

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