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Kathleen Ross, Heritage University's first president, steps down

Yakima Herald-Republic
June 7, 2010
When Sister Kathleen Ross agreed to be the founding president of Heritage College, she thought she'd stay five to 10 years before trying something else.

Thirty years later, Ross is finally making her exit.

"I did a lot of thinking and praying about the right time to step down," said Ross, 68. "This is the right time. I'm at peace with it."

Although she's vacating her role as president, Ross is not retiring. She will spend a few months helping incoming President John Bassett, take a nine-month sabbatical and return to Heritage next year in a new role - leading a national institution that helps disadvantaged students earn baccalaureate degrees.

"This is a major national issue," she said, noting low-income, first-generation students are twice as likely to drop out of school as other students. "I want to build on what Heritage has learned."

Before Heritage, there was Fort Wright College, a Spokane-based university that operated a regional site in Toppenish. The site was established in the mid-'70s but shut down in 1980 when the university itself closed, due in part to declining enrollment and financial problems.

That's when Yakama women Martha Yallup and Violet Rau, who had key roles in the Yakama Nation's education system, turned to Ross for help. Without much convincing, Yallup said Ross - the academic vice president at Fort Wright - agreed to run Heritage.

"(Violet and I) were both able to recognize the special qualities she had," she said. "To me, she is like a sister. She is a part of my family."

As her first act as president, Ross recruited educators, a retired county commissioner and even a Catholic bishop to serve on a 12-member board of trustees. Together, the team worked to provide students with a high-quality education, one that united people of differing social, economic and ethnic backgrounds.

"I was so scared it wouldn't work," Ross said. "I did a lot of praying and quite a bit of crying."

If Ross cried, Mary Schlick didn't notice. Schlick, a former teacher, served on the founding board for three years and said she was continually amazed by Ross' dedication and fortitude.

"What she did was come in with a very, very strong focus," Schlick said. "She had a dream and was able to push ahead and carry that dream out. It has something to do with her personality and her determination."

Virginia Hislop of Yakima agrees. She's served on the board of trustees since 1987, and said she's never seen Ross waver in her mission to help students.

"If you go to a dinner party or any party with Kathleen, you know she will work the room," Hislop said, adding that Ross never misses an opportunity to solicit donations or discuss Heritage's successes. "You hope her food isn't cold by the time she gets to it."
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