Community Q&A: HEP Heritage Coordinator Connects Students to Opportunities and Resources | Local


More than a quarter of Yakima residents do not have a high school diploma or equivalent. That’s where Heritage University’s High School Equivalency Program, or HEP, comes in.

HEP is a free GED program specifically for low-income migrant workers and their family members. Serving approximately 100 students each year, the program holds courses in Toppenish, Prescott and Granger.

An essential element of the program is consideration of the needs of students beyond the classroom. Much of this is led by Jennifer Lemus, the Employment and Retention Coordinator.

Originally from Toppenish, Lemus returned to the area after the birth of her son and has worked with HEP ever since. She is focused on helping students stay in the program and succeed after earning their GED by connecting them to free local resources, jobs, and other post-graduate opportunities.

Here are some questions and answers with Lemus. They have been edited for clarity and length.

What is the High School Equivalency Program and why is it important to the community?

This is a five-year grant program through the Office of Migrant Education. The importance these days more than anything is that there are a lot of jobs where you need your GED. The students end up getting stuck.

That’s where it always turns, with students who had to drop out or a family emergency or something happened or they couldn’t stay in high school. I feel like a lot of them feel stuck. When they’re stuck, that’s why they come and they decide to get their GED.

That’s when the students start coming in, and they’re in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. It’s perfectly fine. For me, it’s even better, because they took the initiative to do it.

How would you describe your work?

My daily life, when we have students, is always to attend. Make sure the student arrives. If they don’t come, communicate with them, with the instructor — see what happens.

For the most part throughout the year we have students graduating. I will also do internships with the students. I schedule them to come and we do those placements – what school they want to go to or if they want a better job or ESL classes, whatever.

I will do this throughout the year or throughout my day. I create presentations for students. We’ll have People for People, Heritage, Perry Tech or whoever is willing to come in.

Once a month they do class presentations for this service. We have a lot of students who don’t know about all the services we have in the community. It’s a way for them to know and know what they have. Many of them are completely free.

Then I meet the students once a month. I coordinate it according to their class time. If the class is in the morning, then I will do it then and if it is in the afternoon, then I will do it in the afternoon.

What are the students doing after HEP?

For the majority of our students, these are ESL courses simply because they cannot continue their studies until they are fluent in English to be able to take these courses.

The majority of our students (Spanish speaking) do English as a second language and then they’ll come back, like a year later, and say, “I’m interested”.

It’s something we do after meeting them. Six months after they graduate, we follow up with them to see if they need any additional services.

Say, six months later, they’ve mastered ESL classes, it’s, “OK, what do you want to do now?” They come back and I help them again if they need it.

What services are available?

It varies. It can be anything like employment, behavioral health, mental health; sometimes they need resumes, food banks. I’ll get emails from people or organizations or other programs and they’ll say, “Hey, we have a food bank here.”

I will always forward these emails to our instructors, or we have a board here and post them on this board, just so they are aware. That’s a lot, but when classes are held, I always forward all those emails or flyers to our instructors so they can provide them to our students. If anyone is ever interested or in need, he has it.

We try to let them know it’s happening, it’s out there – you’re welcome. There are plenty of them there, all they need. I always let them know, “Just ask.

If I don’t know, I will find it.

Let’s say someone is interested in getting their high school equivalency or GED. How would they start this process?

This would first ask the questions for the requirements. Do you have a farming background – yourself or a household member? Do you have a valid ID? Are you over 16?

Do you have some sort of financial need? The financial need can be anything low income, so WIC, EBT, public insurance, for you or someone in the household. Once they’ve ticked all those boxes and said yes, yes, yes, they come in and take an assessment exam. It is an examination based on reading and mathematics at the ninth grade level.

Once they pass the exam, they will go ahead and start coming (to class). Our classes are Monday through Thursday, afternoons from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. and mornings from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

They’ll come to class and that’s when we’ll start watching them, that’s when I’ll start meeting them and seeing how they’re doing, how the class is going, what they feel and it just depends on the student.

A student will graduate in two months, in one month. We had students graduate within a week. Someone will take a whole year. It depends. This is the ongoing process to enter.

I will see in attendance if a student does not come. I’ll catch up, I’ll notice the unexcused absence. We always try to understand and understand what is happening with the student. Many of them have families and they have children; it becomes a bit more of a struggle.

We have a few occasions where they say nothing and end up leaving and coming back maybe a few years later. Many of them end up turning back.

We have a lot of students who come for a semester or a year, then leave, then they come back and they’re a completely different person. They will be there every day. We all have things that happen in life. Sometimes you’re just not ready for it, which is totally fine.

That’s what makes it rewarding, because I hear about the struggle. I hear it and then you are there. You did it. I hear everything; that’s what makes it rewarding.

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