Sister Kathleen Ross, leader in higher education, to address Saint Martin’s 2011 graduates

April 15, 2011

LACEY, WASHINGTON — Sister Kathleen A. Ross, S.N.J.M., Ph.D., esteemed leader in independent higher education and president emerita of Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington, will deliver the 2011 commencement address at Saint Martin’s University on Saturday, May 7, at 2:00 p.m. in the Hal and Inge Marcus Pavilion. Ross will also receive an honorary degree in humane letters from the University.

Ross, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, is founding president and professor of cross-cultural communication at Heritage University. In July 2010, after 28 years’ service as president of Heritage University, Ross retired. During her tenure, she worked closely with the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation to champion the success of Native American students by expanding their access to higher education. As a result of these efforts, Heritage is recognized nationwide as a leading institution for providing educational excellence to underserved student populations. 

“Saint Martin’s mission speaks of the interaction of faith, reason and service,” says Roy F. Heynderickx, Ph.D., president of Saint Martin’s University. “There is no better model of these values than Sister Kathleen, who has inspired generations of leaders. She has dedicated her life to creating an atmosphere of inclusivity and equity in higher education for communities who have been historically underrepresented.”

Heritage started under the auspices of Fort Wright College (formerly Holy Names College), where Ross served as vice president until Fort Wright closed in 1980. Soon after, Martha Yallup and Violet Rau — two women from the Yakama Nation — approached Ross about forming a new four-year institution. Working with the two women and leaders from business, religious and education communities in the Yakima Valley, Ross founded Heritage College in 1982. Over the course of nearly three decades, Ross led the growth of the institution from an initial 85 students to an enrollment of 1,400 in 2010, and established it as an accredited university.

Today, Heritage University is a national model for promoting multiculturalism in higher education. It is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an Hispanic Serving Institution, a designation reserved for colleges and universities where Hispanic students make up 25 percent or more of the undergraduate enrollment. The university is located on the Yakama Indian Reservation in central Washington state where, in addition to Native peoples, significant populations of Mexican immigrants have settled along with rural white and Asian American populations to form a richly diverse agricultural community.

Ross’s commitment to higher education has earned her much acclaim over the years. In 1989, she received the prestigious McGraw Prize in Education, an honor for individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education in the United States. In 1995, Governor Mike Lowry and the Washington Legislature awarded her the Washington State Medal of Merit. Ross received a 1997 MacArthur Fellowship, and with it, a “genius grant” of $335,000; she donated the money to Heritage University projects. In 2010, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities honored Ross with the Henry Paley Memorial Award, which recognizes those who have unfailingly served the students and faculty of independent higher education.

For more than 25 years, Ross has consulted the Yakama Nation on various projects. Considered an expert on intercultural communication, she has written and spoken extensively on the critical need for higher education in underserved communities.

Ross holds a doctorate in higher education management and cross-cultural studies from Claremont Graduate University, where her dissertation focused on “Cultural Factors in the Success and Failure of American Indian Students in Higher Education.” She earned a master’s degree in non-Western history from Georgetown University, and completed graduate study on African history at American University in Washington, D.C. Ross graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history, English and philosophy from Fort Wright College in Spokane. She holds honorary degrees from 13 institutions including Dartmouth College, University of Notre Dame, Seattle University and Gonzaga University.   

Says Heynderickx, “Dr. Ross’s success growing Heritage University as a place of opportunity for every student resonates with the Saint Martin’s community, which supports students of all backgrounds in the pursuit of their personal, academic and professional goals. Her message will send our graduates into an increasingly global and multicultural world, where the values of their Benedictine education will serve them well.”

Saint Martin’s will confer 360 bachelor’s degrees and 81 master’s degrees at its May 7 ceremony. For more information on this event, visit the Saint Martin’s University Commencement website at

Saint Martin’s University is an independent four-year, Catholic, coeducational university located on a 380-acre wooded campus in Lacey, Washington. Established in 1895 by the Catholic Order of Saint Benedict, the University is one of 18 Benedictine colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and the only one west of the Rocky Mountains. Saint Martin’s University prepares students for successful lives through its 21 majors and six graduate programs spanning the liberal arts, business, education and engineering. Saint Martin’s welcomes 1,250 students from many ethnic and religious backgrounds to its main campus, and 650 more to its extension campuses located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Everett College, Centralia College and Tacoma Community College. Visit the Saint Martin’s University website at
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Jennifer Fellinger
Vice President, Marketing and Communications

Mary Conley Law
Registrar, Saint Martin’s University