By Bill Knief
Every year, once the fiestas have come and gone and the monsoons are in steady rotation each afternoon, it feels like we are already beginning the slow slide into fall. Our brains know it’s still summer, but even on the hottest afternoons, with the humming birds still buzzing around the feeders and the vultures cruising the thermals like there was no tomorrow, there’s something else—something new in the air that whispers “autumn.” Much of this feeling can be attributed to the annual ritual of heading back to school, whether it takes the form of anticipation, apprehension or a mixture of the two. But no matter how you look at it, it’s a powerful rite of passage.
Patricia Gonzales has been through it many times. After graduating from Taos High she enrolled at main campus in Albuquerque, only to discover that it was not for her. “Here I am at this huge campus that has more people in it than my whole community has,” she told me in a recent interview. “It wasn’t for me.”
She dropped out, came back to Taos and started taking classes here at home. But along with marrying and starting a family she always stayed true to her academic path. She got an associate’s degree. She got her bachelor’s. Then a master’s. She is now the Director of the Department of Student Affairs and runs the enrollment program. With the first day of fall semester just a few days away—Monday, August 19—I asked her to share some thoughts about the coming semester.
“I think my personal experience that first semester is why I am so passionate about retention now,” she said. “When I first started at UNM-Taos (about a million years ago) we had one advisor, and we did the best we could with what we had. But we never had that deepening relationship over time that keeps students moving forward along their academic path. When you feel comfortable with where you are, comfortable asking questions when they arise, you build relationships. You build rapport with your academic advisors. You develop a complete understanding of the program that you’re in, and what’s required. And that’s when you become successful.
“When you’re scared, when you’re afraid your question is a dumb one, because you don’t know enough about your program to know if it is a silly question or not, that’s when people are driven away. ‘I can’t do this. I’m out of here’ they say. Having more academic advisors increases the opportunities to retain students—to keep them working toward their goals. That’s why we have three full time advisors now, and Diego Trujillo, who runs the CASA tutoring program, helps out too. Then we have Vickie Alvarez in admissions, Nikki Moyer and Rosina Chaparro in financial aid and Bella Rodriguez, Jennifer Miranda and Jose Perez in advising. There’s on-the-surface advising, and then there’s deep academic advising. All of my staff are cross-trained to give students the best possible opportunity to succeed. ”
Gonzales reported that there have been some important changes in the last couple of semesters that have translated into more students staying the course. One is a plan to individualize and deepen the advising relationship by assigning students to an advisor who is a specialist in a particular area of study, and who will stay with the student through completion of their individual education program. “With this continuity,” she said, “with the same person staying with you until you graduate, the relationship deepens and becomes more individualized. This is going to give the students the tools they need to be successful, and that way, they take ownership of their education.
“That’s what retention is all about.”
If you would like to learn more about the UNM-Taos model of education, contact the admissions office as soon as possible at 737-6200 or come by the admissions office in Pueblo Hall on the Klauer Campus. Class schedules are in racks around town, and you can go online at taos.unm.edu to see the class schedule and even enroll online. But don’t delay—the days are getting shorter, and fall is on the way.