News Briefs

Students explore systemic racism in the nursing profession

Heritage University BSN students meet with Dr. Peggy Chinn and Dr. Lucinda Canty

A visit by leaders in nursing is taking Heritage students’ voices to a national audience. In October, two nursing educators who are at the forefront of a movement to address issues of racism in the field of nursing visited Heritage to meet with students.

Dr. Peggy Chinn and Dr. Lucinda Canty traveled to Heritage to spend the day with students in advance of addressing colleagues at the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing. The pair, along with Heritage’s director of the Nursing program, Dr. Christina Nyirati, and Valorie Taylor, clinical director at Tacoma’s MultiCare Health System, are organizers of Overdue Reckoning on Racism in Nursing. The initiative, which launched in September 2020, aims to open discussion that focuses on coming to terms
with racism in the field of nursing, to elevate the voices of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other nurses of color, and to inspire changes that address racism on a national level.

“We wanted to represent the voices of nursing students as part of our keynote address at the Commission,” said Nyirati. “Drs. Chinn and Canty suggested visiting Heritage to hear from our students about how the university is standing up to fulfill our mission of creating a just society for all.”

The pair spent several hours with students, faculty and administrators, including time spent at a Blessing of the Hands and Hearts ceremony at the Heritage Teepee, in an informal listening session with the students. page14image59142544

Heritage professors join boards of directors

Two Heritage professors recently joined the boards of directors at Washington state organizations and non-profits.

Miguel Juarez in class

Miguel Juarez in class

Social Work Field Director and Associate Professor Miguel Juarez, Ed.D., joined the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Washington Chapter Board of Directors. NASW appointed Juarez to serve as the chapter’s first vice president. He will oversee the chapter’s diversity plan as part of his duties.

Kristin James-Dunn


Assistant Professor Kirstin James-Dunn, Ph.D., joined the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s board of directors. James-Dunn is the first board member from eastern Washington and will act as primary representative and vital liaison to Washington arts communities for “all points east of the Cascades.” page27image58999408



Multimillion dollar grant to bring expantion of Nursing and enhance STEM programs

The U.S. Department of Education Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions (DHSI) branch awarded a $3 million grant to Heritage University to expand its Nursing program and upgrade its science laboratories.

The grant will allow Heritage to expand its current nursing program to allow registered nurses who are currently working in the field but do not have a bachelor’s degree to go back to school to earn that degree.

“The faculty at Heritage have worked very hard to establish a world-class BSN program at Heritage. This award by the Department of Education to expand the program validates their accomplishments. The grant will allow for a significant expansion of the program resulting in even more highly qualified nurses ready to serve the people of the Valley,” said President Andrew Sund, Ph.D.

In addition to the RN to BSN degree pathway development, the university’s science technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) offerings will expand with new laboratories for environmental, health and physical sciences. The existing biology, chemistry and physics laboratories at Heritage will be redesigned and equipped to meet the rigorous demands for effective STEM degree programs instruction.

The grant also allows for upgrades to the university’s information technology services, improvements to its institutional data collection and analysis, and the development of a financial literacy program for undergraduates.

Federal grant allocates funds for STEM Education Center on campus

A $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will expand outreach to high school students to prepare them to pursue college studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and help Heritage build a new 4,700
square foot STEM Education Center on the Toppenish campus.

The five-year grant will allow the university to employ mentors to work with high school students interested in STEM fields as a means to increase the number of college graduates entering into technical fields in the Yakima Valley.

The soon-to-be-constructed education center will include laboratories, learning spaces and state-of-the-art equipment to support STEM programs. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in late 2022.

Campus mourns loss of friend and volunteer

On November 15, 2021 Sister Marina Rose Parisi (nee Virginia Catherine Parisi), passed away unexpectedly at Trios Kennewick Hospital. Parisi was a long-time supporter of Heritage University and a volunteer singing teacher who with worked children in the university’s Early Learning Center.

Parisi was a member of the Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM) for more than 66 years. Through SNJM, she devoted herself to teaching children, mostly those who were poor and from underserved communities,

as well as teaching religion and sacramental preparation. She spent 19 years working with children in Western Washington and Oregon before moving to Peru, where she spent 17 years working as a teacher and principal in Arequipa. When she returned to the United States, she moved to Wapato and worked as the director of religious education for 14 years. Her work at Heritage began after retiring from a career that spanned 40 years and two continents.


Early Learning Center to get new home

The generosity of two anonymous private donors is improving learning for Heritage’s youngest eagles. The university broke ground on a new state-of- the-art Early Learning Center on December 3. The new $3.2 million facility will contain five classrooms, It 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.

“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. “Our basic philosophy is one of freedom to learn, grow and make choices and we have structured the environment to reflect that belief.”

The center is slated to open in the winter of 2022. The new ELC will allow Heritage to increase the number of children served from 75 to 90.



In the United States, there are only two universities designated by the United States Department of Education as both a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and a Native American Serving Non- Tribal Institution (NASNTI). Heritage is one of them.

An HSI is an accredited, degree-granting, public or private nonprofit institution of higher education with 25% or more of its total full-time enrolled students who identify as Hispanic. A NASNTI is a postsecondary institution not affiliated with American Indian and Native Alaskan tribes and has an enrollment of 10% or more of its full-time students who identify as Native American. In the fall of 2020, the undergraduate student population consisted of 67% Hispanic/Latino and 10% American Indian or Alaska Native students.

Being and an HSI and NASNTI qualify for additional funding that can pay for programming that benefits the university and all of its students, regardless of race or culture.

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.

News Briefs – Wings Summer 2021

Heritage returns to in-person instruction this fall

A year and a half after Heritage moved to remote learning and working in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, students, faculty and staff are returning to the campus.

Faculty and staff return to working on campus starting August 2 with students arriving at the start of the semester on August 24.

Heritage University students sit outside the Kathleen Ross, snjm Center during the beginning of the fall 2020 semester

Heritage University students sit outside the Kathleen Ross, snjm Center during the beginning of the fall 2020 semester

“The biggest responsibility we have as an administration is to assure that we can provide a safe environment for everyone to work and study at Heritage,” said Sund.

He stressed that Heritage is doing every they can to meet that responsibility, maintaining all pandemic precautions, including mask-wearing inside buildings, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning protocols. Additionally, the university requires all faculty, staff and students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This decision follows vaccination recommendations by the Yakima County Health District, the State of Washington, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” said Sund. “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are effective and safe, and failure to require vaccinations would legally and ethically constitute a direct threat to the safety of staff, faculty, and students.”

Exceptions to the vaccination requirement will be made for people who have medical conditions, religious beliefs, or extenuating circumstances that prevent them from being vaccinated. Sund also said reasonable accommodations would be made for people who fall into those categories. The university will collect vaccination information and proceed with enforcement of the vaccination policy.

Sund stresses that the university is working closely with Yakima County Health District in its safe opening planning. Changes to the progress being made to tackle the pandemic locally and throughout the state of Washington could force the university to change its course of direction. For the most recent information on Heritage’s COVID-19 response, visit


Online tool available to assist with planned giving

A screen capture of the MyGiving webpage on the Heritage University website

A screen capture of the MyGiving webpage on the Heritage University website

Individuals interested in learning more about planned giving have an informative new tool available to them 24 hours a day to help them get started. Heritage University recently launched its planned giving website,

“Planned giving is something that people at a wide range of income levels can and should consider,” said Mary Bohmke, Heritage major gifts officer. “There are many different ways that you can attend to causes that you care about in your estate plans that don’t require you to be a multimillionaire.”

The website includes helpful information on a wide array of ways to give, as well as information on wills and personal stories from some of Heritage’s supporters. Readers can also sign up to receive a free estate planning guide or sign up for a weekly e-newsletter.


Campus mourns loss of alumna, friend, colleague and mentor

Heritage alum and staff member Laura Aguiar Garibay passed away on June 9, 2021, following a long illness. She was the Assistant Director of Financial Aid and graduated from Heritage in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. As a student, she was the definition of a student leader. She was active
in the Associated Student Body (ASB), serving two terms as the president, where she led the restructuring of the ASB into the more formal Student Government Association. She was an advocate for education, lending her voice to recruiting and fundraising efforts to raise awareness for the need for accessible higher education and scholarships. Aguiar Garibay was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and the undergraduate student speaker who voiced her classmates’ desire for equity.

Laura Aguiar Garibay

Laura Aguiar Garibay

Aguiar Garibay was passionate about helping access higher education. She understood firsthand the challenges that undocumented
students face in earning their college degrees. After graduation, she joined the Heritage University staff, working in the financial aid office to help students access higher education. She was so dedicated to students that she worked from her hospital bed until shortly before her passing. She also continued her advocacy for undocumented students, sharing her story nationally in many publications, including the New York Times.

Laura is survived by her wife Crystal, whom she met at Heritage; her mother Antonia Garibay Hernandez and father Lugerio Aguiar Hernandez; her sisters Maria Del Carmen Aguiar, Sofia Aguiar, and Evelyn Aguiar; brothers Javier Alejandro Aguiar and Raul David Aguiar; and many nieces and nephews. Her family requested contributions be made to the scholarship fund established in her memory at Heritage University in lieu of flowers.

Bountiful Generosity, Boundless Gratitude – Wings Summer 2021

A collage of those who raised a virtual paddle for the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner

As the university prepared for its 35th Annual Bounty of the Valley Scholarship Dinner, David Wise, vice president for Advancement, knew the goal of raising $750,000 was ambitious.

“Three quarters of a million dollars is a significant amount of money to raise at a single event, even during normal times,” said Wise. “However, the challenges of this past year have hit students especially hard, making the need for scholarships even more pronounced.”

Heritage University student Maritza Alvarez receives a camera cue during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner June 5, 2021

Heritage University student Maritza Alvarez receives a camera cue during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner June 5, 2021

Adding to the challenge was the event would once again have to be held remotely.

“Even though we were seeing a great deal of progress on tackling COVID-19 on a state and national level, the restrictions around large gatherings, plus our concern for the health and welfare of our students, staff and supporters, made us realize that it was entirely too early to go back to our traditional dinner and paddle raise,” said Wise.

The team put their heads together to come up with a virtual event that captured spirit of the live event.

“One of the things that we miss most is the camaraderie of being together and hearing from all of our students,” said Dana Eliason, senior development director. “Our challenge was how do we replicate this in the virtual space?”

The answer came from the students themselves.

Heritage University students serve as phone operators during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner June 5, 2021

Heritage University students serve as phone operators during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner June 5, 2021

“This year we called upon our students to take the lead on our event. Not only did they share their stories in some of our videos, two of
them, Enedeo Garza-Ramirez and Maritza Alvarez hosted the live, real-time telecast. They did an amazing job!” The response? This year’s event broke all records; $872,500 raised to support Heritage students!

Heritage University alumni Laura Quintero pauses during taping of her student speaker segment that aired during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner on June 5, 2021

Heritage University alumni Laura Quintero pauses during taping of her student speaker segment that aired during the Bounty of the Valley Virtual Scholarship Dinner on June 5, 2021

“To say we are overwhelmed by the generosity of so many is an understatement,” said Wise.

“This university is truly blessed with many extremely gracious and generous donors, sponsors and friends,” said Eliason. “There were so many things that made this event special, starting with our wonderful students who graciously shared their stories and volunteered countless hours to make the evening successful. They and some added touches contributed by the community, such as the donated wine and chocolates that went out to those who RSVP’d and the special Bounty of the Valley meal that Provisions Restaurant offered made a memorable evening.”

The beauty of a virtual event, is that even if you missed it live on June 5, you can still watch it any time. Visit

Class Notes – Wings Summer 2021


Christine Murphy Switzer (M.A., Multicultural English Language and Literature) joined the faculty at Lewis and Clark Middle School in the Yakima School District. Prior to this, she worked at the West Valley School District in Yakima.


Ida Moses-Hyipeer (B.A., Business Administration) joined Heritage University to serve as the Program Coordinator for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Grant. In her role, Moses-Hyipeer assists with the coordination of services for Native American students at the university.

Noemi Sanchez (B.A., History) is an Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist for Columbia Legal Services (CLS). She joined the non-profit organization in May. CLS provides advocacy and free legal services to individuals facing poverty and oppression who, for reasons of institutionalization or immigration status, are otherwise unable to access representation.

Adam Strom (Education, B.A.Ed., M.A.Ed.) joined Haskell University as the new women’s basketball head coach. Before his appointment, Strom spent five years as the women’s basketball coach for Yakima Community College. He led the team to win 21 games and qualify for the Northwest Athletic Conference finals during his last year.


You are an important part of the university family, and we want to make sure that you are fully informed of all the great opportunities that are available to you through Alumni Connections. There are lots of great ways to stay connected:

• Like us on Facebook ( HeritageUniversityAlumni)

• Sign up to receive Heritage’s e-newsletter HUNow.

• Visit us online at heritage. edu/alumni

Of course, the best way to stay connected is to make sure your contact information is up to date. Please be sure to let us know if your address, e-mail or phone number changes. You can submit your changes online through alumni, e-mail us at alumni@ or give us a call at (509) 865-8644.