By Bill Knief
“I always love the start of the fall semester. You can feel the excitement in the air,” began Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill in our conversation last week about what the second half of the 2012 school year might hold for our community college. “Our enrollment numbers look strong and we are seeing a lot more younger students than we used to.”
The final enrollment tally won’t be official for a few more days, but it is a safe bet that we will meet or exceed last fall’s total of nearly 1,500 students, and although the average age of a UNM-Taos student still resides solidly in the mid-thirties, younger, first time students keep coming in at an ever-quickening pace.
“This is going to be an interesting year,” O’Neill went on. “We are bringing two new advisors on board and we are requiring all new, full time students to take a new course called University 101. That is basically an introduction to study skills, time management, computer literacy and other practical academic skills. It is also a handy way to get to know your peers, and it has become a model that has been successful at other schools. We realize that with so many first-generation college students and now so many younger students, we need to take that extra time to make sure students have a solid foundation under them in terms of knowing how to be a college student and how to succeed. We’re here for those students, and their success is truly our success.
“We are fully committed to helping people get the most out of their educational experience and help them to get where they are going. It has been a top priority to make higher education accessible to as many New Mexico citizens as possible. But we also realize that we must broaden our mission and make sure that once people get in the door, they get all the support they need to succeed.
“We offer academic and career tech programs. You can get your start at UNM-Taos and go on to get your PhD in engineering. You can come here and get what you need to become a professional chef, and anything in between that meets the needs of our surrounding area. We work with Highlands, Northern, Luna and other schools so that we don’t duplicate, but accentuate each other’s curricula.
“People look to UNM-Taos for economic development, and we take that role very seriously. In the health care field, we have our newly accredited nursing program, but we also have medical massage, human services and other pre-science programs that prepare people for everything from Pharmacy Tech to Certified Nursing Assistant, EMT and others.
“In addition, we have scheduled courses for the business community in Web design, Excel, and other areas that local business owners can take advantage of. Our Green Jobs Training, Culinary Arts, Dental Assisting all lead directly to employment at a very high rate of placement.
“We faced extraordinary budget cuts both at the state and federal levels in the past four years. Our general operating budget alone has been cut by 14 percent, and we have had to face some very stark choices. We get about three million dollars annually from the state now, and out of that we serve over three thousand students.
“Fortunately, last fall, we received a five year federal Title V Hispanic Serving Institutions grant designed specifically for improving student success and retention. It enables us to develop infrastructure for the institutional capacity building of the college. What they mean by that, however, is that they want us to absorb the cost of implementation to keep those programs going after the five years are up.
“In other words, it’s a constant challenge to give our students and this community what they expect and deserve from their higher educational experience. We have refocused our energies on all aspects of fundraising—bringing in grants, revamping our course offerings so that we are making the best use of every tuition, state, federal and private dollar, bringing in more developmental and entrepreneurial initiatives, crafting more distance education classes, and forming public – private partnerships. We are doing everything we can to ensure the continued vitality of UNM-Taos.
“The best way people can help support education in Taos County right now is to vote for the Education Gross Receipts Tax coming up September 18. It is a continuation of a half cent tax that has been around for twenty years already, so you won’t see any tax increase whatsoever. What you will see is essential funding not just for UNM-Taos but for the charter schools in the county as well as the Taos, Questa and Penasco school districts. This is a win/win for the entire county.”
Note: due to a mistake in wording on the ballot, early voters who have already voted will need to re-vote in this important election. Please consult local news sources and contact Taos County to make sure your vote counts.