Heritage University is evolving from its roots as a small college that served nontraditional students at a former elementary school. Part of this evolution at its campus west of Toppenish stems from necessity; an electrical fire burned the old McKinley School building — renamed Petrie Hall — to the ground two years ago. But part of this change is conscious, to transform Heritage into a more traditional university. In the process, the school is honoring its past and continuing to excel in areas where it has done well in the past.

Forced by the fire to rebuild, the university has started to reinvent itself for its approximately 1,200 undergraduate and graduate students. On the former Petrie site arises a new building that will include classrooms, art studios and bricks salvaged from Petrie’s ruins — an homage to the structure where it all started for Heritage in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, one of the college’s academic strengths during the past decade again exerted itself on the national level. A group of Heritage business students competed at a national competition put on by Enactus USA, an organization committed to entrepreneurship that also encourages volunteer work.

They not only competed at the event in Cincinnati; they almost won it all. Heritage finished third out of 225 colleges and universities at the expo put on by Enactus, formerly known as SIFE. Heritage’s result is noteworthy but not new; four times in the past eight years, the school’s teams have placed in the top four nationally.

And it’s not just for show; through the Enactus program, Heritage volunteers conducted 31 volunteer projects in the Yakima Valley and overseas in the past year. The projects ranged from a training program for aspiring engineers in the local agricultural industry to helping impoverished women in Belize set up their own businesses.

Heritage’s recent commencement also reflected its growth and ambitions. No longer a cozy affair under tents at the campus, the graduation ceremony took place at the Yakima Valley SunDome. More than 2,000 people showed up to honor the 272 graduating students and to hear commencement speaker Mimi Gates, retired director of the Seattle Art Museum and the stepmother of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

The university, starting with founding President Kathleen Ross and continuing with current President John Bassett, has become a valuable educational option for students throughout the Yakima Valley.

As Gates told the commencement gathering, “Be assured your dedication and hard work will pay off. Mine did.” That message of hard work and dedication also applies to Heritage students, administrators, teachers and staff — whose hard work of more than three decades is paying off for the entire Valley.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.