By Bill Knief
UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill likes to say that our branch campus is the little college that could. She is referring to the 100 year old children’s folk classic, The Little Engine that Could, a story about a small railroad engine that pulls a heavy train over the mountains while all the bigger engines make up excuses as to why they are not up to the task.
What Dr. O’Neill is alluding to is the fact that our relatively new, small and geographically isolated community college consistently outperforms the bigger, better-funded institutions across the state and sometimes even across the country.
This fall we experienced an 8.9 percent increase in enrollment while other New Mexico colleges and universities remained relatively flat or even saw their enrollment numbers going down. The theory was that the hard economic times during the recession had caused out-of-work or underemployed people to go back to school to retrain, improve their job skills and become more competitive in the workforce, thus fueling a rapid growth trend in higher education.
But in today’s improving economy, and despite substantial tightening of financial aid, we are still setting the pace for the other guys. In our first week of spring semester registration we more than doubled last year’s first week total. How can this keep happening?
I think there are several factors in play. For one thing, what we lack in resources we more than make up for in creativity. That’s critical, because having the second smallest number of square feet per student in the state, while experiencing unprecedented enrollment increases every semester, is no small challenge. So at the same time that one of the original buildings on campus, Padre Martinez Hall, is receiving a major overhaul to accommodate all-important improvements in student services, we are putting the finishing touches on an agreement with the town to take over and repurpose the underused convention center facilities in the center of town.
Another factor is that our Department of Instruction works hard to provide appropriate courses and relevant programs that assist people in the real world. A good example of this is the Accelerate program for technical training and job placement run by Avelina Martinez through the Business and Professional Skills area of study coordinated by Victoria Gonzales. Their stated purpose is to build confidence in students by identifying and communicating strengths that will assist them in their academic and professional endeavors; in other words, provide them with what they need to get on with their lives. Gabino Dimas took the Accelerate eight week summer math intensive, and had this to say: “This course sharpens your mind and gives you better focus, so you can be competent and strong and prepared and ready. It gave me that push to want to try harder and do better in everything I do, both in and out of school. “
Arguably the most important factor in our continuing enrollment success, however, belongs to the students themselves. As grants administrator David Trujillo likes to say, “There’s nothing wrong with our gene pool.” Northern New Mexico is full of citizens determined to improve and enrich their own lives while setting a good example for their families and neighbors, and no financial hardship or personal challenge is going to deflect them from their goal.
In a sense, they are the real conductors that drive the little college that could.
We plan to have over half our spring semester student body enrolled by the time we close down for winter break. If you think you’d like to join them, you can register through Friday, December 20, before we close for the holidays, and then we reopen on January 2. To get started all you have to do is pick up a schedule in this week’s Taos News and in racks around town, then call us at 737-6200, go online at taos.unm.edu, or come out to Pueblo Hall on the Klauer campus during regular business hours. The spring, 2014 semester begins January 20.