From Heritage to Harvard and Back Again!
No one writes a better story about Heritage University and its students than Robert Ozuna. Whether it’s part of an application for a half million dollars or five million, Ozuna writes passionately about Heritage and the students it serves because he knows them. As a first-generation college student with early-life experience working in hop fields, he’s shared many of their life challenges.
Today, as President & CEO of RGI Corporation, the educational consulting business he co-founded in Sunnyside, Washington, Ozuna often partners with Heritage on its multi-faceted grant-writing endeavors, seeking sizable funding for everything from money for new buildings, to getting people in need into college, to necessary support services for existing students. RGI’s small team of a dozen grant writers and researchers includes many Heritage graduates.
The Heritage/RGI grant-acquisition success rate is an impressive 100 percent since 2020: Five applications have been submitted, and all five have been awarded. Their work is responsible for $13.3 million in funding received for programs that served more than 1,000 students over the last five years.
There are reasons for the success, Ozuna said. There is a high level of need in the region, and Heritage is doing great work to meet that need. When the story of the impact of the university in the community they serve is told accurately and compellingly, it’s powerful.
“From Hop Harvest to Heritage to Harvard,” a journalist once wrote about Ozuna. People said he could have worked anywhere – but what mattered most to Ozuna was what the people back home needed.
GETTING OUT OF THE FIELDS
Robert Ozuna was born in south Texas to parents who were migrant farmworkers. After years following the seasons back and forth, they ultimately settled in Grandview in the Yakima Valley.
“Working in the fields was hard labor,” Ozuna says. “My parents always told me, ‘You need to graduate from high school and get out of the fields.’ They dreamed of me getting a good job bagging groceries inside a store.”
Ozuna graduated from high school and took a job recruiting migrant children into school programs for Educational Service District 123. Later, he trained parents to become involved in their children’s education.
“I acquired a passion for helping people, especially students,” he said. “And after a while, I thought, ‘I’m telling all these students to get an education, yet I don’t have a degree myself.’ I decided to go to back to school. I had a lot of ties to the Yakima Valley, and I felt Heritage was the best place for me.”
Once at Heritage, Ozuna started getting to know his fellow students, both Latinx and Yakama.
“I was driven to really engage with them because I found that everyone had a story,” he says. “The common thread was there was usually no role model because their parents didn’t know about college or how to navigate financial aid. There was a lot of determination in the face of adversity, and here, students could get their education without leaving the valley.”
Heritage gave Ozuna the confidence to pursue his educational goals. He thought about going to Harvard.
Like his success today, his higher-education trajectory beginning at Heritage was impressive. The university was a 600-student college still
in its infancy when he graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration. He proceeded to follow it up by earning his Master of Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He dedicated the first half of his career to public service and education.
“I wanted to go to Harvard, and I thought, I will never get in, but I’ll just apply, get rejected and get it over with,’” he says. “But I got accepted.”
Ozuna was there during a time when many of his fellow students were going to work for the Clinton administration. He was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s U. S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Federal Advisory Board, even though he’d already decided to return to Washington State.
“Our dean said if anyone wanted to work in government, that was the time – we had the opportunity. But I always felt we really needed to get an education and come back. We need lawyers and doctors who look like us.
“I said my work was back home. There was so much to be done. Heritage provided me the opportunity and knowledge to pursue my educational goals leading to Harvard and coming back. Heritage will forever have a special place in my heart for providing me with this opportunity.”
DOING THE IMPORTANT WORK
Ozuna returned to the Yakima Valley and took a position directing the Statewide Farmworker Employment and Training Program, followed by the University of Washington Yakima Valley Community Partnership. Then he fulfilled an important personal goal: to be the CEO of his own business.
“I had worked with students and families one- on-one,” he says. “Instead of touching lives one at a time, I wanted my work to have a positive effect on as many people as possible, to do things on more of a macro instead of a micro level.”
He founded RGI Research Corporation with Heritage mathematics professor Ryan Landvoy in 2002. In addition to Heritage, RGI clients today include the University of Washington, Washington State University, ESD 105, Utah State University and many Alaska School Districts, whose student population is 98 percent Alaska Native.
Ozuna’s care for his community has most recently been exhibited in the fulfillment of another dream: to become an elected official. He’s served on the Grandview City Council since 2020.
His goal with RGI has always been to stay small so they can pick and choose their clients and do the work that matters most. “I am proud that Heritage University is one of our most valued clients.”
“I’ve had friends who’ve said, ‘You went to Harvard, and you came back?’
“’Absolutely,’ I say. I came back to help our people.”