Husky 509

Ricardo Valdez’s Yakima Homecoming

As director of the UW-Yakima Valley Community Partnerships Program, UW alumni Ricardo Valdez, ’94, is no stranger to the unique distinctions and challenges between life east and west of the Cascades.

When he was born, Valdez’s parents had recently settled in Wapato, a small yet incredibly diverse community on the Yakima Indian reservation with a population representing Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese and Filipinos. They had spent years with his older siblings in tow as migrant workers throughout the Pacific Northwest.

While Valdez says it was “fortunate that he didn’t have to experience much of that migration, throughout western Washington, Oregon and California,” he would himself migrate across the Cascades to attend the UW in 1989, where he “had the opportunity to meet a lot of people, interact with other peers and faculty that I might not have had the opportunity to.” Valdez graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s in business administration:  “It got my attention because it was broad enough that I could get involved in different areas that might interest me later in life.”

Though Valdez fondly recalls his years at the UW as “unforgettable,” he felt a strong calling to return to the Yakima Valley:  “To be quite honest….I was catching a bus over the downtown area every day for work, and it seemed extremely…monotonous, going into a high rise building and looking out….I remember thinking ‘is this really what I got my degree for?’” He moved back to eastern Washington, believing he was “more marketable as a young bilingual Latino back home, where I could hopefully make a difference.”

In 2003, Valdez was presented with the opportunity to bridge his experiences across the state and make a tangible impact as associate director of UW-Yakima Valley Community Partnerships, a program linking diverse communities in the extended Yakima Valley region with the UW to do work of mutual value. The position was exciting to Valdez…”and what was even more exciting was the fact that it was based in the Yakima Valley — it was about engaging faculty and students in real-life needs here in the area. That really caught my attention.”

“I think we’ve done a good job, but we’ve just scratched the surface. We’ve ignited partnerships and involvement in the community, but we could do so much more.”

By 2009, he had been made director of the program, developing and coordinating numerous projects across different sectors, including economic development initiatives, the Latino Oral Histories project, and the creation of education programs through U.S. Department of Education and Housing and Urban Development grants. In addition, under his leadership the Program had been hard at work revitalizing parks and outdoor spaces, working with the Latino and Yakima Nation communities to build computer technology centers and executing a community needs assessment project – all designed to give voice to and empower minority communities in the region.

“I think we’ve done a good job, but we’ve just scratched the surface,” says Valdez. “We’ve ignited partnerships and involvement in the community, but we could do so much more. I believe the UW could be the university of Washington, not just the university of Seattle and its surrounding areas. UW has such an abundance of knowledge and resources, and with that said, there’s still so much for the university to gain from the wisdom and experiences of the multicultural areas of our community that are extremely unique. Where else can you go and be on an Indian reservation, and at the same time be immersed in numerous other cultures? It’s just an unbelievable wealth of diverse perspectives….you can learn from each other and that’s what I see here in the Yakima valley.”

Often, when students leave the Yakima Valley to pursue an education, they don’t return home. In this regard, Valdez believes that bridging the University of Washington and communities in the Yakima Valley is of vital importance to the region. “Going back — it’s a personal decision. I would say that if students decide not to return home, it’s my hope that they at least leave some footprint here after they’ve already left…developing some service learning or experiential project here in the valley that can provide a reciprocal benefit. If the community is also benefiting from what they’ve learned at the UW, it can go a long way in the Yakima valley — sharing, leaving a legacy.”

As for his own decision to return to and work in his hometown: “I hit a crossroads in my life and made a decision to move back. I don’t regret it.”