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Home Growing a Workforce

Most students graduating in May spend the summer looking for their first big job. Not Sandra Benitez (B.A., Business Administration, 2018). When she graduated last spring, she walked right back into the office where she had interned as a student – now as a full-time employee. Over the last two years, ten other people have done the same thing.

They’re participants in a growing Heritage University business internship program that pairs juniors and seniors with companies looking to not only offer experiential learning for students but to potentially hire them.

Fertile soil, lots of sunshine and a long growing season make Yakima County first in the state for value of
crop and livestock products. Agriculture contributes a whopping $1.2 billion to the local economy. It’s a big number, and it’s growing, said Vicky Swank, business administration professor at Heritage.

“Heritage’s business internship program is growing with it.”

Swank oversees the program, placing students with majors in business administration, finance and accounting with companies that want to give them meaningful working world experience.

A job after graduation isn’t guaranteed but, often job offers are extended. Since the summer of 2017, almost half – 10 out of 22 students – were hired by the employer where they interned.

“From Stadelman Fruits to Yakima Chief Hops to Roy Farms, our students are doing meaningful internships and getting hired,” said Swank.

She said Heritage has recognized a perfect fit between its students and area agriculture companies.

“We have young people who attend Heritage and they want to stay in the Valley because of their families. With the human resource needs in the valley creating incredible opportunities, we strive to provide educational resources to meet these needs.”

For some, such as Heritage junior Alfonso Gonzalez-Colin, the opportunity to enter their careers starts long before graduation. He started what was to be a summer work experience with Stadelman Fruit last June. By the end of the summer, the internship turned into a part- time position in the company’s accounting department. By the time Gonzalez-Colin graduates, he will have two years of professional experience with a company that he loves, and in the career he is studying to enter.

Heritage University alumni Krystal Treece and Sandra Benitez work at Roy Farms Oct. 17, 2018 in Moxee, Wash. (GORDON KING/Gordon King Photography)

Swank considers a significant part of her job to be that of preparing Heritage students for the internships many will pursue.

“Our students often come to us needing to feel more confident in their communication, probably having no experience in the business world,” she said. “This is one of the areas around which we design our curriculum.”

Every business class at Heritage requires students to do at least one oral presentation. It’s those “soft skills,” said Swank that, along with rigorous course requirements, make students better communicators, positioning them for success in an internship and beyond.

A Heritage advisory board consisting of area business leaders makes recommendations that keep Heritage’s curriculum strong. Its members weigh in on experiences that can make Heritage students stand out from the crowd.

John Reeves, an agriculture industry expert and Heritage board member, sees ag industry internships as key in that student experience – and key in making Heritage students most useful in the ag industry.

“There will be 10 billion people on the planet by the year 2050,” said Reeves. “That means developing more and better ways to feed more and more people. For an area that is a true mecca of agriculture, that’s a big opportunity.

“For Heritage and its students, these internships represent a great opportunity to be a significant part of it.”

“We create a better-equipped graduate by always asking how we can better prepare them,” said Swank. “What else can we do to develop a student who is a strong communicator, is collaborative and works with others, and a critical thinker who approaches a problem and comes up with a solution?

“We tell our students, ‘Don’t go to your boss with problems all day long – go in there with solutions.’ We give them experiences in the classroom so that they can improve those skills.”


Mike Goettl, CEO at Yakima Chief Hops, first heard of Heritage’s professional internship program while on a campus tour.

“He thought it sounded like the perfect way to give young people meaningful work and real-life experience and give us potential new employees,” said Lisa Garcia, Yakima Chief Hops human resources director. “Mike has been a big advocate for partnering with Heritage as part of our search for future employees.”

Garcia works with several educational institutions – Yakima Valley College, Central Washington University and Perry Tech among them. She says Heritage students have a particularly strong work ethic, an eagerness to learn, and a huge desire and determination to do well at their jobs.

“With Heritage, we started out with three really strong interns, and we’re working to expand our program,” said Garcia. “Our goal is to increase our internship program with Heritage to six to 10 students.”

Like most Heritage student interns, Denisse Gutierrez, Business Administration ’18, went into her internship with experience in the agriculture industry. Her dad owns a small orchard, so she was used to helping pick apples.

“The whole thing just feels familiar, so that’s nice, yet I’m working in areas of the company that give me new experiences.”

As an intern at Roy Farms, Gutierrez helped with safety audits, drug and alcohol testing and data input. As the months went on, she had the opportunity to get a sense of the bigger picture at the company.

“Towards the end of the internship, I was attending most of the weekly all- company meetings. Everyone would talk about what they were doing, and I just soaked it all up. I really learned a lot.”

Gutierrez did a second internship at Yakima Chief Hops where she was ultimately hired – and considers both huge personal growth experiences she wouldn’t have had in the classroom.

“In my first internship, initially I kind of kept to myself. But you interact with a lot of different people in the working world. As I kept talking to more and more people in the office and the warehouse and the fields, I just kind of opened up. Your communication skills really develop.

“I had an amazing experience during my internship,” said Sandra Benitez, who feels Swank’s placement of her with Roy Farms matched her with the perfect company.

“I have worked in agriculture my entire life. I had let Vicky know that this was something that I wanted to do in the long run, and I know this is my future.”

Sandra Benitez’s internship at Roy Farms led to a position in the company’s human resources department.

Reeves sees big things for Heritage interns.

“First, our students’ work ethic is unquestionable. Nothing’s been handed to them,” he said. “Then there’s this opportunity. With

lots of private equity coming into Washington State and a big bunch of that into Yakima, we’re looking at everything from robots to super high tech irrigation to drones, with big companies and lots of investment.

“And when they receive this education and find meaningful work in this industry, we have provided the opportunity to uplift not only them but their families. These kids lift themselves up, their families, our community, the county and then the nation. That’s what makes America great.”

“I’m in awe every day of our students. What they bring to everything they do and to these companies. The positive outlook, the persistence, tenacity, motivation, eagerness, this can-do attitude,” said Swank. “What employer wouldn’t want an employee like that?”

To learn how your company can partner with Heritage University’s business administration internship program, contact Vicky Swank at swank_v@heritage.edu, or call (509) 865-0726.