YAKIMA, Wash. — Mimi Gates, stepmother of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, encouraged 272 graduating students at Heritage University’s commencement ceremony Saturday to persevere and not let discouragement keep them from their dreams.

Situated west of Toppenish on the Yakama Nation reservation, Heritage University’s mission is to provide secondary education to an underserved population of minority and nontraditional students.

Gates, who carved a career for herself as a noted art museum director, told a crowd of more than 2,000 at the Yakima Valley SunDome how she felt uprooted as a child when she moved from Dayton, Ohio, to the East Coast, where her father had gotten a new job.

“I left friends behind and the place I called home,” she said. “That move affected me deeply.”

And it was at that time, she said, that she began thinking about what she would do with the her life when she became an adult.

“I came to love my studies, worked hard and much to my surprise, I was accepted into a fine college in California” —Stanford University.

Her endeavours in higher education came at a time when most women were homemakers.

“For me, and many of you, the greatest obstacle was being female,” she said, adding that her father told her all she needed to do was “find a good husband and have children.”

Gates told how she took the challenge to learn Chinese in the 1960s despite having a professor tell her that he didn’t believe she could do it. Her father even asked her what she would do with Chinese. She said the discouragement “only made me push harder.”

She earned a certificate with honors in Chinese language and culture form the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris. Her knowledge of the Chinese language and art helped her became a curator of Asian art at the Yale University Art Gallery before becoming the gallery’s director in 1987.

Those types of positions were mostly held by men in those days, she explained.

“I stepped up and took the position,” she said.

After the Yale Art Gallery, she became the director of the Seattle Art Museum in 1994, and two years later married the Microsoft co-founder’s father, William H. Gates Sr.

She retired from the Seattle museum in 2009, and had served on several national art and museum boards. Currently, she’s an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington Art Department and a board member of UW’s Jackson School of International Studies.

Her education includes a bachelor’s degree in art history from Stanford, a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in history from Yale.

“Education, especially post-secondary education, is a great lesson because it’s a means to a healthy, productive life,” she said. “Be assured your dedication and hard work will pay off. Mine did.”