STEM(ming) the Tide of Pollution

Heritage STEM students get valuable experience through applied learning while working on environmental issues in collaboration with students and researchers from other colleges.

Thirty-five Heritage students, called “EAGLES Scholars,” are working with and benefitting from the National Science Foundation’s S-STEM Program grant for internships and research experiences. With a focus on studying environmental pollution, the $5 million grant was awarded to Heritage University and Portland State University in a partnership model built largely on each university’s location within the Columbia River Basin.

As EAGLES Scholars – the acronym comes from “Engagement Achievement and Graduation for Low-incomE Students” – students selected to take part have ongoing academic support and guidance for research and internship applications as well as presentations for conferences. Ultimately, they get connected to job possibilities at graduation.

Their research internships are giving them valuable real-world skills – and life experiences they never anticipated.

Mayra Diaz-Acevedo


Mayra Diaz-Acevedo’s first EAGLES-related research internship centered on numerical analysis. It took place over eight weeks last summer at Los Angeles’s Occidental College. It was completely math-focused. But in interacting with her fellow interns there, she learned how math concepts can be applied to a subject she’s passionate about: the environment.

She also learned she can operate successfully in settings other than what she’s been used to close to home.

“It was a numerical analysis internship that involved applying nonstandard finite difference schemes to differential equations,” Diaz- Acevedo said. “I focused on data science, number theory, numerical analysis, and positional game theory.

“But it was working with the other students at Oxy and getting to see how passionate they were that really inspired me.”

Diaz-Acevedo said she’s still amazed that she actually went to L.A. and at how much she learned from the experience of being away, something about which she initially felt somewhat fearful.

“I got to learn so much more about different places in those two months. Now I’m interested in going to new places, and I’m not afraid to go farther.”

Diaz-Acevedo is considering the possibility of graduate school, continuing in mathematics or applied math. She’s currently looking at internships for summer 2022 that involve environmental science with applied math or physics.

“I’ve always really wanted to see how I could contribute to helping the environment through my field of study. Now I know there are so many ways that it can be applied to the environment.”

Colton Maybee


After graduating from West Valley High School in 2018, Heritage junior Colton Maybee got a job as a low-voltage electrician apprentice. He thought he might go to technical school. He didn’t think much about college.

But a family friend suggested he look at Heritage and its EAGLES Scholarship program. Between the EAGLES funding and other aid, he could get a full-ride if he was accepted.

Fast forward two years, and Maybee, a computer science major, already has an internship in computational modeling under his belt. Through a 10-week summer program at Portland State University, virtual because of the pandemic, he’s now had his hand in computer science work he never imagined he’d have – all because of his EAGLES scholarship.

“My section was monitoring trail hazards using path-finding algorithms that guide hikers along 70 miles of trails through the Portland State Forest,” said Maybee. “My job was to develop a mobile app that would enable trail users to report hazards anywhere along the trails.“

At PSU’s final symposium on computations modeling serving the city of Portland, Maybee presented “Digitally reporting trail obstructions in Forest Park.” His 16 fellow interns presented on a wealth of mostly environment- and city- related issues in subjects that included Portland’s water quality and environmental factors affecting humpback whales.

None of the interns had any previous experience in what they relatively quickly became adept at discussing.

Maybee, who’s taken just four computer science courses to date, said though he didn’t have quite enough time to get devices communicating with each other, he did get the app’s framework up and running.

He said that a big takeaway from the internship was the concept of recognizing when you’re going in the wrong direction.

“I thought everything would be coded in Python, so I watched all kinds of YouTube tutorials. Then when I actually got to the internship, I realized it would all be in Java.

“I learned you can’t keep trudging down a trail if it’s not getting you anywhere. You have to realize when you need to start over and not be frustrated by wasted time.”

Maybee said that’s important because, while he’ll graduate with a massive body of computer science knowledge, it’s a rapidly changing field.

“I’ll always be learning.”

Gustavo Mendez-Soto


Heritage sophomore Gustavo Mendez-Soto has always observed what’s going on around him.

He chose his computer science major because he was inspired by his brother. He wanted to follow in his footsteps and thought programming sounded like fun.

After he enrolled at Heritage, he applied for and was excepted to the EAGLES scholarship program. Last summer, he did his first internship, examining the impact of groundwater on the sustainability and resilience of the Yakima River Basin during drought years, through Washington State University. It was online due to the pandemic.

“I was assigned to work with a project studying the impact of the drought years on the groundwater in the Yakima River basin,” Mendez-Soto said.

Droughts have a large impact on the basin, its fisheries and agricultural land, Mendez-Soto noted. Droughts mean lower rivers and streams, dying fish, forests burning and overall water shortages.

He employed the “STAR” calculator – for SusTainability And Resilience – to evaluate three different drought years and their impact in the Yakima River Basin.

“I learned to work with a programming system that allowed us to insert and visualize data, kind of like an Excel spreadsheet but more advanced. I did a lot of data searching, which was the hardest part, and then making sense of all that data.”

Now Mendez-Soto dreams of getting a job at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to help with environmental clean-up. He hopes to get an internship with PNNL this summer, an experience that can make his dream of working there one day more likely.


Andrea Mendoza

Andrea Mendoza wants other students to see the fun in biology, even though what she considers her first experience with it – having her appendix out at age 10 – wasn’t fun at all.

“But from that, I realized there’s more to life than what you see on the outside,” she said.

Upon graduating from high school, she knew she wanted to pursue a STEM subject. She enrolled at Heritage, where her professor Alex Alexiades suggested she apply for the EAGLES scholarship program. She was accepted. She’s currently a junior – and a biology major.

Mendoza did her summer 2021 internship in entomology research at USDA-ARS Temperate Tree Fruit & Vegetable Research Unit in Wapato, Washington. Her research contributed to knowledge about the efficacy of using natural predators to kill off insects.

For their daily fieldwork, interns and project leaders met at the lab, then drove to the site together in a work vehicle. Fieldwork involved setting up plots, collecting insects, and changing various traps. Lab work involved counting and identifying insects and mites with the use of a microscope.

“We found earwigs were beneficial in apple orchards, versus in cherry orchards where they ruined the cherries,” said Mendoza. “In apple orchards, they became the top predator killing off what was damaging to the apples.”

Many STEM students find the combination of field and laboratory work useful during a time they’re in the process of discerning their research preferences. Based on whatever internship she gets this summer, Mendoza said she’s looking forward to learning whether she prefers an outdoor science setting or a lab experience.

“I think internships are a great connection to the real world of STEM careers. You’re not just in the books – you have conversations.

“I’m learning, and I really like that.”

As the first person in her family to study science, Mendoza feels like a role model for other family members.

“I’m over here testing the waters, not quite knowing what I’m doing. It’s nice that you know you’re not supposed to be perfect or know everything.”

Mendoza dreams of sharing her love for biology as a teacher at her alma mater: Yakima’s Davis High School.


Scores of universities across the nation compete for NSF grants, said Natural Sciences Associate Professor Alex Alexiades, who spearheaded the effort.

“The NSF grant focuses on studying environmental pollution and, in particular, aquatic pollution. With PSU at the mouth of the Columbia Basin and Heritage at the headwaters, we get the full watershed scope.

“The grant lets us take advantage of that and so much more.”

“These research experiences with an emphasis on the environment open students’ minds to the possibilities,” said Julie Conley, EAGLES project coordinator and adjunct faculty member in the environmental science program.

“They begin to step out of their comfort zone and ultimately to see themselves in a more professional role as scientists and researchers.” page14image64821552


Honoring the First Peoples

Heritage University’s relationship with the Yakama Nation is rooted in its history and intricately tied to its future. It is the college founded by two Yakama women, situated on the ancestral lands of the Yakama Nation, and the academic home to hundreds of Native American students and alumni.

Each year, the university celebrates this relationship and honors Native Americans everywhere through its events and activities during Native American Heritage Month, which is recognized nationally every November.

This year’s celebrations were especially meaningful given that it was among the first on-campus activities held since March 2020. As always, the celebration kicked off with a flag-raising ceremony with the Yakama Warriors Association. Additionally, we honored five Native American elders for their lifetime contributions to their communities. And, we formalized our recognition of indigenous peoples from time immemorial as the stewards of the land upon which the university now inhabits with the signing of the university’s Land Acknowledgement statement.

Long before the ground was turned to within these documents to best reflect Heritage and construct the first building that would one day become Heritage University, the land upon which the college sits was occupied and cared for by the indigenous people of the Columbia River Basin. On November 10, President Andrew Sund, Ph.D. and Kip Ramsey, board member and chair of the university’s Tribal Relations Committee, signed a formal Land Acknowledgement Statement that recognizes and respects those who were the traditional stewards of the land and the enduring relationship that exists between the Yakamas and their traditional territory.

“It is important that we acknowledge the tribes and their place as stewards of this land, of the entire continent, since time immemorial,” said Ramsey. “In acknowledging their role, we acknowledge our responsibility to understand our past and to carry on their stewardship for the benefit of our children and our children’s children.”

Andrew Sund, Ph.D., president of Heritage University (left) and Kip Ramsey, Heritage University board member and chair of the board’s Tribal Relations Committee (right), sign copies of the Land Acknowledgement Statement during a ceremony held next to the Heritage University TeePee November 10, 2021.

The acknowledgment was created by a committee of Indigenous faculty and staff members at Heritage University with input from Yakama Nation tribal leaders. The process was a year in the making. Committee members explored similar documents established at other colleges and universities and adapted the language and themes within these documents to best reflect Heritage and the Yakama people. Once written, the initial draft was presented to Yakama Nation tribal leaders for their input.

The entire process ended with the official document, two abbreviated statements for everyday use, as well as an action plan with short and long- term suggestions to maximize the significance of the acknowledgment. That plan includes the public display of the document, reading acknowledgment at the start of university events, hosting “learning circles” on Yakama culture and traditions for faculty, staff and administrators, and enhancing the university’s existing American Indian Studies program, so the university becomes an education destination for indigenous students from throughout the region.

“We know that education is intricately woven into the Yakama culture, as tribal elders share their knowledge with their children and younger tribal members. Heritage was created to bring higher education to this land and to serve as a complement to the education systems that  already exist within the Nation,” said Sund.

The official, signed document is now framed and on display on campus. page14image64587808

Heritage University Land Acknowledgement Statement


The Science of Tradition

When Environmental Sciences student Agnes Meninick was completing her internship project last summer, she had no idea she was engaged in a relatively new method of science teaching and learning. An educational movement incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into western science curriculums is finding growing support on college campuses. Heritage University is at the forefront of this movement.

“Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a recognition that the people who have been on these lands, whose lives have been deeply connected to their environment, since time immemorial, have a voice and a perspective that deserves to be heard,” said Dr. Jessica Black, chair of the Sciences Department. “It is bringing those voices into the classroom and our students’ experiences.”

Agnes Meninick

While TEK may sound like a radical departure from the way science curriculum is traditionally taught in colleges, Black explains that it and western science are not mutually exclusive. They complement each other, especially when it comes to the field of environmental science.

“So much of western science is based on concepts held by indigenous peoples throughout the world,” she said. “There are many areas where western scientists can’t collect data. In these areas, indigenous populations are the knowledge holders. They have historical perspectives that western science lacks and often have an innate understanding of how organisms and ecosystems interact.

“Native American tribes are leading the way on much of the work around conservation and environmental protection and policy. They need graduates who are western science trained, but who also have a real respect for tribal practices.”

Take the work being done by tribes in Washington state around salmon restoration, for example, said Dr. Alex Alexiades, associate professor of natural science.

The Columbia River Basin is the traditional fishing ground for the Yakama people. Starting in the mid-1930s and running to the 1970s, the Army Corp of Engineers built hydroelectric dams up and down the river.

“From the western perspective, the dams brought reliable, clean power. However, from the tribal perspective, they disconnected the sacred river and the species that require the use of that watershed,” he said.

Indeed, the dams did provide power, but the unintended impact on fish that could no longer reach their spawning grounds was devastating. Salmon populations declined rapidly.

“The tribes have and continue to take a central role in finding solutions to mitigate the negative impact that dams made to the salmon population,” he said.

Alexiades stresses that while students who study in programs with a TEK focus are better prepared for careers working with tribal agencies, far more significant benefits positively impact all students, regardless of their career destinations. He explains that western science tends to look at things at a granular level—a geologist studying a specific rock or a biologist concentrating on a single species, for example. However, in nature, all of these pieces are elements within a larger whole of the ecosystem. They all relate to each other, and what happens to one impacts others. TEK is a reverence and understanding of all of the elements of the environment and recognizing the need for a more holistic approach when working within the environment.


Integrating TEK into the environmental science curriculum was both intentional and collaborative. When Dr. Kazuhiro Sonoda, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, came to Heritage and became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he enlisted the help of Black to introduce TEK to the curriculum.

“Heritage is located on the ancestral tribal lands of the Yakama people. Our strength is our location and our relationship with the Yakama Nation,” he said. “Building the program began with our relationship with the tribe, with being intentional and respecting the culture.”

The university built its relationship with tribal elders, scientists and leaders within the Yakama Nation’s environmental programs. They were invited into the classrooms to share stories and to talk about the work they were doing. Students were placed in internships and research experiences with tribal agencies. Additionally, Heritage developed intergenerational programs that connected high school students with college students, tribal leaders and elders, such as its annual People of the Big River class that takes students on a two-week academic excursion to visit tribes up and down the Columbia River Basin. That work continues today.

Sonoda stresses that TEK isn’t a substitution for western sciences; it is an addition. Students still participate in rigorous biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics curriculum, just with a broader perspective.


TEK may have started the environmental science program, but it is expanding into other programs.

A little over a year ago, Sol Neely. Ph.D., a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, joined Heritage’s English Language Arts faculty. He is currently the director of English composition. He is working with Humanities Program Chair Dr. Blake Slonecker on revitalizing the university’s American Indian Studies program into something he calls a “transdisciplinary studies program.” TEK, he says, plays a role in academia across curriculums.

“Indigenized work isn’t divided into disciplines,” he said. “When you look at a bentwood box being made by a Tlingit artist, the person working on the box is as much a scientist as he is an artist. He has to have all the biological knowledge about the wood—the cell structure, how to store it, how steam works to soften it so it can bend. All of these endeavors go into crafting the box that tells the stories.”

He explains that ensuring that American Indian Studies students get a complete, well-rounded education on the Native experience means they will need to study a wide array of disciplines through the lens of indigenous peoples.


Meninick is enrolled Yakama and a junior majoring in environmental science who hopes to one day go into geology. She was going to school at a community college in Las Vegas when she decided it was time for her to “come home.” The college she attended didn’t talk a lot about Native culture or the indigenous people from the area. Meninick had graduated from the Yakama Nation Tribal School, so an education without the inclusion of Native voices seemed unusual and a bit uncomfortable. When she started at Heritage, the inclusion of TEK felt so normal that it wasn’t really anything she noticed.

“It was just so much more comfortable for me here,” she said.

Last summer Meninick participated in an internship with Yakama Nation Water Resources. The department participates in educational outreach with students at the tribal school. Part of their goal is to encourage kids to explore careers in the sciences. Meninick was asked to translate a water cycle graphic into Sahaptin, the traditional language of the Yakama people, for use in their outreach materials.

“It was great to have this opportunity because it gives kids an opportunity to learn both science and our language,” she said. “A lot of this information has been handed down for generations. I believe that our people are starting to forget a lot of the stories. Bringing this to the schools brings it back to the community.”

Meninick presented the translated water cycle at the national American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference earlier this year.

“I had a lot of people compliment me on my work, especially younger people,” she said. “They found it inspirational.”

Her work will continue to inspire future Native scientists as Water Resources use it at the tribal school for years to come. page14image64587808

Honoring Our Elders


Every year, for the past six years, Heritage University has recognized Native American elders for their lifetimes of significant contributions to their communities as part of its Native American Heritage Month celebration. This year, our honorees include a cultural preservationist and mentor, Grammy-nominated musicians, an award-winning educator and an elected official.

NED TILLEQUOTES JR. “KWOI-UMA-IL-PILP” spent a lifetime ensuring the safety and viability of the Yakama Nation and its people. As a tribal police officer, he helped individuals and families during times of their greatest vulnerability by enforcing laws to protect the welfare of others. Then, as an elected official serving on the Tribal Code of Ethics Board, he ensured that those in power fulfilled their duties with integrity. Today, as a member of the Yakama Nation General Council, he serves his people by assuring the prosperity and integrity of the tribe and its treaty rights.

NAKUMPTW PRISCILLA SALUSKIN BLACKWOLF is enrolled Yakama and Wishxum Colville. Growing up, her parents and grandparents taught her the importance of family, love and forgiveness. However, cultural and spiritual connections through traditional crafts, food gathering and ancestral language were something she had to seek out on her own as an adult. She found her way to the longhouse and made a connection that was so powerful that Priscilla dedicated much of her adult life to helping other indigenous people find their own connections to their culture. To this day, she serves as a voluntary mentor, teaching Ichishkiin and taking young people food gathering using traditional ways steeped in ceremony. Because of her, many men and women who were disconnected from their traditional ways are re-engaged with their culture and are passing it along to their children and grandchildren.

KENNY “APA-IKANI” AND LOUISE “TIYUMTK” SCABBY ROBE live their lives dedicated to faith, family and culture. Both grew up, raised
in their cultural traditions. Kenny, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and Louise, who is enrolled Yakama, were both hoop dancers who competed against one another at powwows throughout the west. Many years later, when they met as adults and fell in love, the couple made the conscious decision that they would raise their 12 children with reverence for God and a connection to their cultural heritage through music and dance. That commitment led to the formation of the multi Grammy-nominated drum group Black Lodge Singers whose members include Kenny, Louise and their 12 sons. Since its formation, Black Lodge has served as a cultural ambassador and a source of pride and inspiration for Native Americans everywhere. They have traveled the world, connecting people from different lands, cultures and points of view through the universal spiritual language of music.

GARY “GIIWEDINANANG” DECOTEAU is enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa, who settled in the Yakima Valley and dedicated his life to helping youth achieve their greatest potential through education. He spent 38 years as an educator, first as a teacher at the Yakama Tribal School and then at the Toppenish Middle School, before earning his principal credentials from Heritage University. He went on to serve ten years as the middle school’s principal, earning the prestigious recognition as the Regional State Principal of the Year in 2008. After his retirement, he turned his attention to helping adults achieve their academic dreams when he joined the faculty at Heritage University, where he taught classes and mentored Native American college students. page14image64587808

Before They Walked, Eagles Soared!

It was a long time coming. For some, almost two years. On Saturday, October 30, graduates from the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021 finally had their moment in the sun when they walked across the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas.

For more than 600 graduates, the end of their academic careers was somewhat anticlimactic. COVID restrictions closed the campus to in-person learning and activities. The Class of 2020 went away for spring break and never came back. They finished off their last six weeks of college online. For the Class of 2021, online learning was even longer. They spent their entire senior year in a virtual world. For both classes, celebrating earning their degree with family and friends at Commencement seemed impossible.

“COVID robbed our graduates of some of the best parts about going to college. Their final weeks, and for our Class of 2021, their final year at college was completely different than anyone expected,” said Dr. Kazuhiro Sonoda, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “They all showed great resiliency and grit as they stayed focused on their studies and graduated under these extremely challenging conditions. It was important to all of us to find a way to make Commencement possible.”

This summer, as COVID seemed to be loosening its grip on the nation and more and more people were vaccinated against the illness, school administration felt confident enough to set a date for the rescheduled celebration. October 30 gave everyone enough time to organize the event and was still early enough in the year to avoid winter conditions that could hamper families’ travel plans. However, as the date approached, the Delta strain reared its ugly head.

“We essentially had three choices,” said Sonoda. “We could move the date again, cancel it altogether, or do something radically different.”

They choose the final option. Commencement moved on campus and online. It was set up outside, where chairs and people could be set six feet apart in the open air. It was open only to graduates and those who had a role during the ceremony, such as faculty, speakers and volunteers. A local station, Hispanavision, televised the ceremony so that family and friends could watch the proceedings safely from their own homes.

“Safety was first and foremost on our minds,” said Sonoda. “That and ensuring that our graduates’ experiences were as close to ‘normal’ as possible.”

Of the more than 600 graduates over the two years, roughly a quarter participated in the celebration, including Irwin Godinez-Cruz, B.A., English.

“Being able to celebrate my graduation with a cap and gown was a great honor to my family and me. It was a symbol of all the hard work and sacrifice I put into my academic career. Work and dedication that may have been overseen due to the pandemic, but not forgotten by our institution. The great staff of Heritage University made our dream of having a graduation ceremony a reality. As a first-generation student, this was the greatest of honors,” he said.

Aside from the change in location and limited access, the rest of the event proceeded much like usual. Heritage University founder Dr. Kathleen Ross, snjm presented the Commencement address. Maria Riveria, B.A., Psychology and History, and Godinez- Cruz presented the undergraduate Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 address, respectively. Raymandeep Aujla, M.A., Medical Sciences, and Maggie Lai, M.A., Medical Sciences, presented the graduate addresses for 2020 and 2021. Maria Soto, B.S.W., Social Work and B.A., History, received the 2020 President’s Award of Distinction, and Paola Herrera, B.S.W., Social Work, received the honor for the Class of 2021. After the graduates received their diplomas, the multi- Grammy nominated Native American drum group, Black Lodge Singers, sang an honor song. And, at the end of the long-awaited ceremony, the graduates marched and danced out to celebrate some more with their loved ones awaiting their arrival back home. page5image64606896

Back to Business as the New Normal

Back to Business as the New Normal

Students at Heritage University walk past the Gaye and Jim Pigott Commons on campus during the first week of the fall 2021 semester.

When the 2021/22 academic year opened this fall with students, faculty and staff on campus for in-person learning, what was once normal seemed quite remarkable! After all, for the past year and a half, the campus was more like a ghost town than a university, with most classes meeting online and all but the most essential employees working remotely from their home offices.

The decision to return to in-person classes was made early in the summer when it appeared as though Washington state, and the nation, had turned a corner on COVID-19. Vaccines were widely available, and the rate of infection was going down. The state and health districts had lifted restrictions on gatherings, and schools and universities were given guidelines to return to “normal” operations.

“Our goal was, and continues to be, to provide our students with a quality academic experience while maintaining safety for all who come on campus,” said Dr. Melissa Hill, vice president for student affairs and head of the university’s safe open committee. “We worked very closely with the Department of Health to build a plan that would allow us to accomplish both goals.”

Ensuring safety meant maintaining all of the pandemic protocols—social distancing, wearing face masks and proper hygiene. The biggest change was requiring vaccinations for faculty, staff and students. Hill explained that the decision to require the vaccine came after a great deal of reflection and conversations with a wide array of individuals.

By that time, the vaccine had been widely distributed and was proving to be safe and effective in reducing infection and, in the rare breakthrough cases, in reducing the severity of infection, even with the onset of the Delta variant. Students and staff embraced the mandate for the most part, with only a handful choosing to leave the university or apply for religious or medical exemptions. In fact, at a time when most colleges and universities in the United States reported a drop in enrollment, Heritage’s enrollment remains strong.

Students outside Rau Center

Students study on a picnic table outside the Violet Lumley Rau Center at Heritage University.

“We are very proud of our employees and our student body,” said Hill. “The vast majority were fully vaccinated before the start of the school year.”

The university didn’t do away with its online platforms, which have proven to be an effective tool to help students stay engaged in their studies. During the summer of 2020, Heritage set up its online classrooms so that students can take classes three ways: in person, on campus; synchronously online at the time classes meet; and asynchronously online at a time that best meets their schedule. The result eliminates some of the barriers that can keep students from college, such as unexpected issues with transportation, childcare or even illness.

“Ideally, we want to see every student on campus, in the classroom with their instructor and their peers,” said Hill. “However, the reality of our students’ lives means that sometimes they just can’t make it here. Having these other options gives them more flexibility and options to keep them from missing classes and falling behind. We continue to see a number of our students take advantage of this flexibility.”

The first semester of the year recently wrapped up. Hill is encouraged by the results of the first few months.

“Operating in this pandemic world means we have to be flexible and open to rapid changes. We continue to monitor the situation and are prepared to adjust as needed,” she said. “If there is one thing this last year and a half has shown, it is that our students are resilient and focused on reaching their goals. They are not letting anything get in their way.” page5image25375120

Student sitting near Teepee

A Heritage University student sits near the Teepee and checks her phone during a break from studies on campus.

Yakima Valley Partners for Education and Save the Children use digital resources to expand reading opportunities for elementary students


Yakima Valley Partners for Education and Save the Children work to develop enhanced reading habits in third-graders by providing access to digital books library.

Toppenish, Wash.– Yakima Valley Partners for Education (YVPE) and Save the Children are working to grow the reading skills of third-graders in the lower Yakima Valley by connecting them to digital reading. About 400 students in the Sunnyside, Mabton and Grandview School Districts have received access to the “myON” digital library, a resource with more than 6,000 digital books. Also, students can use a public library provided by Unite for Literacy.

This effort started on November 1, 2021 with literacy outreach rallies in each school district, and focused on the importance of children reading at least 20 minutes a day. “We realize this is a challenging task for many families to accomplish,” said YVPE Director Suzy Diaz. “That is why we are making these additional resources available to encourage student reading in the home with language and narration options to meet their individual needs.”

Jared Lind, director of instructional improvement for the Grandview School District in Grandview, Wash., said not only is this initiative an effort to increase the time students read each day, it prepares them for future learning. “With access to a digital library and an extensive choice of books outside of the school day, students will have the opportunity to establish reading habits that will promote essential skills necessary for school and beyond,” said Lind.

YVPE and Save the Children will monitor use of myON in November and December to track student progress. To reduce possible screen fatigue, users can access narration options in both English and Spanish. For more information, contact David Mance at 509-969-6084 or

About Save the Children

Since its founding more than 100 years ago, Save the Children has changed the lives of more than 1 billion children in the United States and around the world, helping ensure children grow up healthy, educated and safe.

Save the Children is a central program partner, with three Early Learning Coordinators placed in the Grandview School District, serving 150 children locally through home visiting, book bag exchanges, and various food, learning materials, and essential resource distributions. They have also provided catalytic financial and technical investments to help launch this work.

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Virginia Beavert Day Proclamation

Heritage University’s Early Learning Center to offer expanded range of services in new state-of-the-art facility


Heritage University’s Early Learning Center to offer expanded range of services in new state-of-the-art facility

Toppenish, Wash. – Heritage University President Andrew Sund, Ph.D. announced today that thanks to the generosity of an anonymous private donor, it will break ground on December 3, 2021 on a new $3.2 million state-of-the-art Early Learning Facility to serve the needs of the community. The new five-classroom facility will serve children between the ages of 12 months and kindergarten, providing pre-kindergarten instruction known to be invaluable in later years of scholastic achievement.  The center is scheduled to open in the winter of 2022. The groundbreaking ceremony will start at 12:00 p.m.   

Heritage University’s mission of making higher education accessible regardless of economic, cultural or social barriers, is also shared by the university’s Early Learning Center (ELC). The university’s ELC strives to help families with similar access and financial challenges, to prepare their children for success in kindergarten and beyond. “Our early learning programs are designed to offer experiences that enhance and enrich each child’s cognitive, language, social, emotional, physical and creative development,” said ELC Executive Director Claudette Lindquist. “We believe that good child care is good family care. However, our basic philosophy is one of freedom to learn, grow and make choices and we have structured the environment to reflect that belief.”

Quality early learning experiences help prepare children for success in kindergarten, leading to improved educational outcomes during their middle school, high school, and college years. It’s a strategy embraced by Yakima Valley Partners for Education, a Collective Impact initiative started by Heritage University and supported by collaborations with schools and communities throughout the lower Yakima Valley. “We have a deep understanding of the formative role of early education as well as the need to build on the resilience and skills of youth throughout their educational journey,” said Collective Impact Director Suzy Diaz. “We take a cradle-to-career view of improving educational outcomes so that our youth develop into thriving members of our community, and it’s a view wholeheartedly embraced by Heritage University’s ELC.”

Lindquist says the ELC also prepares Heritage University students for their future careers through work-study opportunities at the ELC that provide them valuable experience in their chosen fields. “We have employed social work and nursing students who perform a wide variety of important roles as assistants at the ELC,” said Lindquist. “The students get to use what they’ve learned in the classroom here, earn a paycheck while in school, and obtain skills and experience coveted by employers.”

In addition to serving the lower Yakima Valley community year-round, the ELC also extends its services to Heritage students, faculty and staff. The ELC is currently licensed to enroll 74 students; the expansion will increase that number to 90. For more information, contact Claudette Lindquist at (509) 865-0723 or For help with interviews, please contact Davidson Mance at (509) 969-6084 or

Heritage University Early Learning Center rendering by Graham Baba Architects

Heritage University Presents a Land Acknowledgement Statement to the Yakama Nation Recognizing and Respecting the Indigenous Peoples Who Stewarded the Land on which the University Now Resides


Heritage University Presents a Land Acknowledgement Statement to the Yakama Nation Recognizing and Respecting the Indigenous Peoples Who Stewarded the Land on which the University Now Resides

Toppenish, Wash. – Heritage University (HU) signed a formal Land Acknowledgement Statement (LAS) that recognizes and respects the Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of the land in central Washington where Heritage is located, and the enduring relationship that exists between the Yakama Nation and their traditional territory. Kip Ramsey, a tribal elder and chair of HU’s Tribal Relations Committee, and Heritage president Andrew Sund, Ph.D. signed the LAS at a ceremony held at the Heritage University Teepee on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.

The Land Acknowledgement Statement in full, reads as follows:

Heritage University occupies its home on the traditional lands of the Yakama People. These ancestral homelands are the Yakama, Palouse, Pisquouse, Wenatshapam, Klikatat, Klinquit, Kow- was-say-ee, Li-ay-was, Skin-pah, Wish-ham, Shyiks, Ochechotes, Kah-milt-pa, and Se-ap-cat, who today are represented by the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation [TREATY OF 1855] and, whose relationship with this land continues to this day. Heritage University, grounded in the vision of the two Yakama women founders, respects Indigenous peoples as traditional guardians of the lands and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories.  We offer gratitude for the land itself, for those who have stewarded it for generations, and for the opportunity to study, learn, work, and be in community on this land. We acknowledge that our University’s history, like many others, is fundamentally tied to the first colonial developments in the Yakima Valley. Finally, we respectfully acknowledge and honor past, present, and future Indigenous students who will journey through this home called Heritage University.

Maxine Janis, Ed.D., professor and the President’s Liaison for Native American Affairs at Heritage and a member of the Oglala Latoka nation said over the years Heritage has had various land acknowledgement statements used by various individuals but nothing officially authored by the University. “This signed document gives us an official, consistent message of land acknowledgment,” said Dr. Janis. “It’s a message that we truly recognize and respect the privilege it is to have a university on this land.”

Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin (left) and Yakama Nation General Council Chairman Roger Fiander (middle left) and Heritage University Board of Directors Tribal Relations Committee Chair Kip Ramsey (right) look on as Heritage president Andrew Sund, Ph.d. (middle right) signs a Land Acknowledgement Statement recognizing Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of the land on which Heritage University now resides.

Sol Neely, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Heritage and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who helped write the statement, said the LAS is an important step in further strengthening the long-standing relationship between the Yakama Nation and Heritage University. “Establishing a protocol for delivering the Land Acknowledgement Statement elevates public awareness of both Yakama Nation histories and futures across our campus and the broader community,” said Dr. Neely. “The LAS also includes recommended short and mid-term as well as long-range actions that, when implemented, will ensure meaningful change to benefit Indigenous students.”

Some of the short and mid-term actions include: posting a plaque or framed version of the full Land Acknowledgement Statement in prominent locations on campus; starting all campus events with one of the official Land Acknowledgement Statement(s); organizing “learning circles” on Yakama culture and traditions for all faculty, staff, and administrators and require new faculty, administrators and staff to attend; inventory Ichishkiin language preservation and revitalization resources at Heritage in order to build a “Dr. Virginia Beavert Collection” at the university’s Donald North Library that contains historical, cultural and linguistic materials for educational purposes, to name a few. Long-range actions include updating American Indian Studies (AIS) A.A. and B.A. programs so that Heritage becomes an “education destination” for students across the region; recruiting and retaining an additional Indigenous faculty member to contribute to the AIS programs; investing in and sustaining support for the Heritage University Language Center (HULC).

The Indigenous-led effort to develop the LAS began during the fall 2020 semester at HU when faculty members started talking about the growing number of LAS’s being established by other universities in Canada and the U.S. As support for the Heritage LAS grew, Dr. Janis created a committee of Indigenous faculty including Winona Wynn, Ph.D., Greg Sutterlict, Ph.D. candidate and the previously mentioned Dr. Neely, as well as Yakama Nation Higher Education Program Manager Elese Washines, Ph.D. to write the LAS. Neely, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who has worked with other universities on their own LAS’s, incorporated a LAS between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nations (EBCI) and the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNC-Ashville). During the spring, the draft LAS was endorsed by the HU Board’s Tribal Relations Committee and then presented to the Yakama Nation Tribal Council this past August, where it was warmly received and lauded and called a “landmark moment.”

Dr. Sund said the LAS signing is a very important day for recognizing Heritage’s history and mission with the Yakama Nation. “We know that education has been part of the Yakama Nation since time immemorial, as tribal elders share their knowledge with their children and younger tribal members. Heritage was created to bring higher education to this land and to serve as a complement to the education systems that already exist within the Nation,” said Sund.

Plans are underway to frame and display the Land Acknowledgement Statement on campus. For more information, contact Davidson Mance at 509-969-6084 or at


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