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Students strive at college on reservation

NCR Staff
Toppenish, Wash.

From Portland, the approach to Heritage College is through the Columbia River Gorge. The highway runs along the river, passing by giant waterfalls and through the Dalles, named for the once-dangerous rapids here, at the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains.

A century and a half ago, until completion of an arduous overland road in 1846, pioneers approaching the end of the Oregon Trail at the Dalles were forced to float their wagons over the rapids for the final stretch of their journey to new life in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

On the Washington side of the river and an hour north, in the Yakima Valley, a group of latter-day pioneers at Heritage College struggle to pick up the pieces of social upheaval wrought by 150 years of immigration -- first by white pioneers and later by Hispanics who came to work in their fields. This 16-year-old educational experiment, where undergraduates are 31 percent Hispanic and 22 percent Native American, is paying off in new life for both of these growing populations in the valley.

Founded by two Native American women and a Catholic nun, Holy Names Sr. Kathleen Ross, Heritage College is not a Catholic college. Yet Ross and some of the 13 nuns who have worked at the school since it was founded in 1982 see it as a model of Catholic outreach in the future.

Despite scant resources, the school’s mission is so inviting that it has attracted faculty from far larger and more prestigious schools and kept most of them despite tough times.

“Everybody here has a story” about what brought them here and why they stay, Cherryl Jensen said of the faculty and staff. Jensen, formerly director of university relations at Iowa State University in Ames, is in her fourth year as communications director at Heritage. “Clearly a lot of people here could be at bigger places.”

Last summer, Ross’ efforts got their most prestigious recognition so far when the MacArthur Foundation named her among the top five of its 1997 recipients of coveted “genius awards.”

The school’s location is key to its distinctive identity. From the Dalles, the road to Heritage College crosses the Rattlesnake Hills, their miles of treeless tundra affording a view of snowcapped Mount Adam, sacred to the Indians. In the valley, growers produce 75 percent of the nation’s supply of hops (and 25 percent of the world’s supply), used in making beer, along with many kinds of fruit and Washington wines. This fertile land, with its ideal combination of long summer days, cool nights, rich volcanic soil and mountain runoff, drew Native Americans some 12,000 years ago to a cyclical lifestyle of fishing and hunting, gathering huckleberries, preserving roots and breaking wild horses.

The 19th century brought massive cultural change. For the Indians, white settlers meant wars, rampant disease, a drastically reduced salmon supply as dams were placed along the Columbia River, and finally, social dislocation marked by high rates of alcoholism and suicide. Today, the 9,000-member Yakama tribe -- its elders recently voted to change the spelling of its name -- operates a large forestry business, but 75 percent of some 5,000 Indians on the reservation are still unemployed.

Heritage College, threatened more than once in the past 16 years with having to close, has had to fight hard for the resources and credibility that make it a viable enterprise today. While the region’s growers and business leaders are able to send their children away to college, strong family values, poverty and low expectations keep the Native Americans and Hispanics at home, where educational options are few and high school dropout rates are high. Yet by the time they begin programs at Heritage College, at an average age of 33, professors say their motivation is exceptional. Ross said that some 90 percent of the school’s 2,000 graduates remain in the local area to work, many in education, community service and environmental sciences.

Heritage began as an outreach of Fort Wright College, a Catholic liberal arts school founded by Holy Names sisters in 1907 to train women to teach in Catholic schools. It was forced by financial pressure to close in 1980. When Ross, then Fort Wright’s vice president for academic affairs, told two members of the Yakama tribe, Martha Yallup and Violet Lumley Rau, that the outreach program was likewise doomed, she said they told her, “No way. You have brought hope here. How can you take that away now?”

“I tried to find another college or university to take over,” Ross said, “but the program was so small no one was interested.” When the two Yakama women proposed starting a college, Ross recalls telling them they were “nuts.”

Still, she thought enough of the idea to mention it to her religious superiors. Instead of the negative reaction she expected, she got encouragement. Next she talked to Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., then bishop of Yakima, who gave the project only a 50 percent chance of working, but urged her to try it. Neither her order nor the diocese was able to offer financial sponsorship.

“It became evident that the only way it was going to happen was with cooperation across cultures and traditions,” she said. So a board was formed accordingly.

“I think this is a model for the way we’re going to have to go about doing our work in the future” -- by dropping the “Catholic” label and building cooperative bridges with groups that have resources, Ross said. “Our intellectual heritage, the value we place on the human mind, is one of our most precious traditions. There’s a whole underserved population out there that needs what we have to offer.”

Pioneer spirit
Educationally, the 56-year-old Ross was well-prepared for her new role. A native of Seattle, she has a master’s degree in non-Western history from Georgetown University and a doctorate in higher education management and cross-cultural studies from Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

“There’s a strong pioneer spirit in our history,” Ross said of her order, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Founded in 1843 in Quebec, the order sent 12 sisters by boat in 1859 to the northwestern United States to teach.

Classes at Heritage began under a sycamore tree on the 1.5 million-acre Yakama Indian reservation. That tree now anchors a compound of temporary buildings.

Even today, the college has only two permanent structures for its 1,200 students, up from 85 students in 1982. One is a remodeled former elementary school, the other a new building that houses the library. Built of brick and glass after a $7 million fundraising drive in 1991-92, it was designed after an Indian longhouse and dedicated with an Indian ceremony. Brick patterns on exterior walls mimic basket designs of the Klickitat Indians. The library’s collection includes many books and journals on Indian history and culture.

Ross said, “There have been lots of times when it has been very stressful and frightening, and many financial traumas put us within a hair’s breadth of closing.” A lot of different things have saved the school, she said, including one time when members of the faculty and staff were among those pledging collateral for a loan and “other times when we had to ask people to not take paychecks for a week or month.”

“A few found it too unnerving and left,” she said, “but 90 percent stuck with it because they believed in what we were doing.”

Credibility was another problem. “No one thought we could have an institution of higher learning in the middle of a hop field,” Ross said. Further, she said, some of the locals wondered “what kind of students ‘those people’ would be.”

“At first, we couldn’t get any school district to accept our students for student teaching positions. We had to beg. I went several times to regional meetings of school principals and superintendents to ask them to give us a chance. It was very scary. I didn’t know them, and I had never lived in a rural area.”

The fact that Ross represents a religious order might have boosted respectability in some quarters. But here in central Washington -- a state that qualifies as one of the nation’s least Catholic and least churched -- it got her nothing but surprising questions. Was she married? Did she have children? “They had no concept,” she said. Ross noted that members of her order have long fought strong antireligious and anti-Catholic sentiment in the Northwest.

“Now school districts from all over the state come to interview our students,” she said. They are in high demand in the Yakima Valley, where both Hispanic and Native American populations are growing at a significantly faster rate than populations of whites. In all, some 12,000 Indians of various tribes live in the region.

The Yakima diocese, headed by Cardinal Francis George before he went to Portland, Ore., for a year and then to Chicago, is predominantly Hispanic.

“The business leaders’ and ranchers’ kids go to prestigious schools all over North America and are not coming back,” and their parents are realizing they need to train future leaders for the region, Ross said. “We’ve been a little bit ahead of the social change here so we’re seen as part of the solution. Heritage is suddenly a real bright light in the future of these people.”

Although many students entering Heritage lack strong educational credentials -- either a high school diploma or GED will satisfy admission requirements for the 19 undergraduate degree programs -- professors say students work exceptionally hard. A skill center offers free tutoring and writing help. Research has shown that such assistance is especially important for adult learners, Jensen said.

To accommodate students’ work schedules, 70 percent of the classes are held after 4:30 in the afternoon. The faculty-student ratio is 11-1. Besides programs at Toppenish, graduate programs are offered at other geographically isolated sites in Washington and Hawaii.

Struggles to attend
Many students fight to attend, their obstacles often including families that value immediate income to meet family needs more than a student’s staying in school. Ross said 60 percent of the students, many of them single mothers, live below the poverty line. Last year, 85 percent were the first in their families to attend college.

Heritage has attracted support for programs and scholarships from several national foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Hearst Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust. Two years ago, the James L. Knight Foundation awarded the school $250,000 to help meet its goal of putting more Native American teachers in public schools.

Recently, Heritage was named a “national center of excellence” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Community Development, assuring it of $100,000 over the next two years. Programs and students have received corporate support from Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer in Seattle, and Battelle Corp., which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy at Hanford, Wash. Battelle, which helps train students for nuclear cleanup in the area, has donated some $80,000 in cash and several times that amount in time and talent, Ross said. The school also has received funds from Ross’ religious order and other private donors.

Ted Hearne, spokesman for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which seeks out high achievers in a wide variety of fields, said he thinks Ross is the first nun to receive the foundation’s no-strings-attached “genius award.” The awards are given annually to people who are nominated anonymously and selected for their creative endeavors. Ross’ $335,000 grant, paid quarterly over five years, will go directly to the college for “seed money” for new programs, Ross said.

Faculty members say it sometimes takes a village to get a student through four years, given the frequent transportation problems, money problems, child care needs and other extended family issues that arise.

Pat Whitfield, dean of education and psychology programs, recalls a man who separated from his wife and lived in his truck the rest of the fall semester, showering at school.

Holy Names Sr. Terry Mullen, who teaches “the whole gamut in arts and letters,” thinks of Magdalena Fuentes, pregnant with her third child, getting up at 3 a.m. to pick asparagus, spending a full day at school and then going home to “do the family thing.”

No more asparagus cutter
“When she got her degree, she threw down her asparagus cutter and said, ‘I don’t have to do that again,’ “ Mullen recalls. Fuentes now teaches at an elementary school in Yakima.

Hector DeLeon, a junior who attended Central Washington University, a state school about 35 miles away, before transferring to Heritage, finds a stark difference between the two schools. “At Central I was lost,” he said. “Classes were huge. It overwhelmed me.” Among students there, he said, conversation was mostly “ ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ At Heritage, it’s ‘Have you read your chapter? How are you doing on your paper?’ All we talk about here is school. Classes are so small you know you’re going to get called on. For someone to say, ‘No, I haven’t read it’ -- it just doesn’t happen.”

DeLeon, fifth of eight children in his Mexican-American family of field workers, alternated between attending schools in Texas and Washington and working in the orchards while growing up. Echoing sentiments of other Heritage students about early schooling, he said he “always felt like I didn’t belong.” Although he hated field work, his decision to attend college was a shock to his parents and precipitated some big family fights, he said.

DeLeon is among the 95 percent of Heritage students who receive financial aid. According to a 1997 report by the U.S. Department of Education, the school’s student loan default rate, 2.4 percent, is one of the lowest in the country. Nationally, the default rate is 10.4 percent.

Now, DeLeon said, “my parents are real proud of me,” and he counts on daily support from his new Heritage friends. “Everybody helps each other out here. The faculty are great. They push you and they encourage you.” He expects to graduate in May 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and then get a master’s degree and work with troubled youth in Yakima and Toppenish.

Other former students give testament by their professional stripes. Marilyn Goudy, a Yakama woman, formerly a teacher’s aid, became the first Heritage student to major in Sahaptin, the Yakama language, and now integrates Yakama culture into her curriculum as a seventh and eighth-grade teacher in Toppenish schools. Anna Hogan, 42, also boosted herself from paraprofessional to professional status in area schools, along the way researching the state of education among Native Americans. Her findings convinced her that reservations are on their way to becoming like Third World countries.

Elsa Camacho, mother of five who graduated in 1995 at age 33 and is now in a master’s program, is “hooked,” she said, on environmental sciences geared to nuclear cleanup. Although she avoided science in high school after a biology class in eighth grade, she was steered into science at Heritage by faculty who recognized her strengths in math.

“I got lucky,” she said. “I found the one thing that would interest me the most without even knowing it,” she said. Currently she is working at Battelle under a scholarship program that matches students with scientific corporations.

Her Mexican-born husband, who oversees a crew of pickers and pruners at a local orchard, is an exception among Hispanics, she said, because he supports her educational goals. She eventually hopes to get a PhD.

“We have really become a community of learners,” Sr. Terry Mullen said. “Though student problems keep days unpredictable, in many ways the school is an educator’s dream. One of the biggest reasons I like it here is that students are so eager about learning, so willing to make the personal sacrifices. You teach what you love and they just suck it in. It elicits something in me.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 1998