TOPPENISH — As Debra Whitefoot walked Saturday with 217 other graduating students at Heritage University, she no doubt reflected on the unconventional journey that brought her to campus at age 52.

Whitefoot and her daughter, of White Swan, had been in a bad car accident five years ago. A vocational counselor said her daughter, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, would “never be the same” and that Whitefoot should abandon her own hopes of earning a college degree.

“They told me, “Don’t waste your time with it. You won’t make it.’”

Whitefoot, now 56, is having the last laugh as she graduates with a bachelor’s in business administration and a good job with the Yakama Nation Housing Authority. Daughter Cialita Keys, meanwhile, has just a few semesters to go toward a bachelor’s in environmental science.

Whitefoot exemplifies that kind of nontraditional student who does well at Heritage, and Sister Kathleen Ross, the university’s first president, recognized that when she encouraged both of them to attend.

“Dr. Ross said, ‘You two need to come to university,’” Whitefoot recalled.

Whitefoot said she made the most of her time in college by becoming active with the Center for Native Health and Culture and a member of the Native American club. An enrolled Yakama tribal member, she hopes eventually to parlay her business skills into a broader effort to help her people and the community at large in two areas: quality affordable housing and nutrition outreach and education.

An internship with the Office of Farmworker Housing in Yakima taught her how to prepare grants and learn the nuts and bolts of real estate development. She said she saw firsthand how critical quality housing is to a sense of community.

“You see how important these developments are to the neighborhood,” she said.

Whitefoot also has a longstanding interest in native foods, having served as a traditional food gatherer for tribal longhouse ceremonies. Her grandparents were fish buyers at Celilo Falls along the Columbia River. She’s committed to encouraging a return to foods like salmon as a way to combat dietary challenges for low-income people, who tend to eat cheaper processed products that can lead to diabetes and obesity.

Toward that end, she’s written business plans to improve salmon marketing and is working with a local group on creating a food cooperative that will feature locally grown fruits and vegetables.

But none of her projects will exist in isolation. “We can no longer live in silos. We must partner with other groups in the community if it’s going to work,” she said.

And she thanks Heritage for supporting her and instilling the importance of giving back to the community.

“People look after you here. Now it’s time for me to help other people and my community.”