Scholarship recipient Anahi Goninez shakes hands with Chris Willett, WAEF chair, at the organization’s awards luncheon in Yakima in late July. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)
Scholarship recipient Anahi Goninez shakes hands with Chris Willett, WAEF chair, at the organization’s awards luncheon in Yakima in late July. (Ross Courtney/Good Fruit Grower)

Washington’s tree fruit industry awarded more than $1.1 million this year to 330 students as the Washington Apple Education Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Since its founding in 1994, WAEF has awarded nearly $9 million in scholarships to some 2,000 students and shifted its focus to include not only scholarships but also college and career planning, said Executive Director Jennifer Witherbee, who has been with WAEF for 18 years.

Jennifer Witherbee

“The biggest change in the years I’ve been there is how we define success. It’s based on our students’ careers now,” she said. “It used to be how many scholarships we gave out, but our students need more than just money. We want to be able to help them reach their goals after college, not just get through college.”

Organizationally, that means WAEF makes a commitment to help students who have been selected for scholarships throughout their undergraduate years. Students provide quarterly updates on their college progress, submit renewal applications and participate in renewal interviews.

In addition, several years ago, the group’s board made a conscious choice to better help students achieve their career goals, she said. Offerings include career exploration tours, job shadowing events, summer workshops on topics such as budgeting, building a professional network, social media engagement in a professional world and preparing for a job interview.

The results are paying off, she said. The vast majority of scholarship students complete school, and 80 percent of recipients are low-income students who are among the first generation in their families to attend college.

It’s a support system built beyond scholarships, said board member and former scholarship recipient Kailan Dunn, now in sales for H.R. Spinner Corp. in Yakima, Washington.

“We really are investing our time and money into this. Everyone thinks it’s just scholarships, but it’s so much more than that. Every year we keep adding more and more,” he said. “Mock interviews, getting the students out to see different jobs, getting them familiarized with internships and opportunities.”

That includes ensuring they understand there’s more to agriculture today than picking fruit.

“So many of these kids, who might be the first in their families to go to college, think the only opportunities in the fruit industry are picking fruit. One thing WAEF has been able to do is show them that, yes, those jobs are essential, and they’ll always be there, but there’s also HR, accounting, countless other jobs. There are so many other ways to be a part of the tree fruit industry,” Dunn said.

Two years ago, WAEF started an alumni association, with an alumni breakfast at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting.

“It’s been fun to watch that grow,” he said. At 12 years removed from his college days, he added, “I’m the old person in that group, and it’s fun to see who else is coming in — and it’s fun for them to see me, now giving back financially and with time, and I hope that will inspire them to give back as well.”

Witherbee shared that sentiment.

“You just don’t get a check from WAEF,” she said. “You’re kind of stuck with us. And it’s paying off: We’re seeing more and more of our students volunteering, we have an employee who is a program graduate, and more and more mentors. Many come back to us, full circle.” •

—by Shannon Dininny