By Bill Knief
Thirteen year Taos resident Dr. Kate O’Neill came on board as acting director of UNM-Taos in 2006. On July 1, 2007, after a lengthy selection process, she took over as permanent executive director. I asked her to give a rundown of the year’s major events, and what she thought of the job so far.
“It’s really a demanding job,” she said. “It’s 24/7. And it’s very satisfying. Being the director of a school in a community this size, people come up to me on the street and ask how we’re doing, or have a suggestion as to how we can improve registration, or an idea for a new class. We are very grateful for the strong community support.”
“We’ve got to find ways to keep access and affordability at the forefront of education here in Taos.”
High on her list of accomplishments was success at the state level:
“We certainly had our best year ever at the state legislature. We came home with 1.6 million dollars. We also have a good presence with the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges, so all ten branch campuses can work together for our students on things like zero tuition credit, where basically we get rewarded if we don’t raise tuition. We’ve got to find ways to keep access and affordability at the forefront of education here in Taos.
“We have already put together a 3.3 million dollar request in the 2008 legislative session general obligation bond, and the New Mexico Department of Higher Education supports our recommendation. With the help of our local representatives we hope to make it through the upcoming session with the 3.3. It would help us complete the classroom facility that is currently shelled out at the Klauer campus, and allow us to complete the telecommunications infrastructure for wireless access, phone lines, computers and distance education classes. Additional funds we’ve requested from the legislature include money for our bachelor of science degree in nursing, and also we’d like workforce development money—$200,000.00—to be recurring, so we can build permanent programs.”
In 2007 UNM-Taos initiated new four year bachelor-level programs in education and nursing, because, O’Neill said, “When you look at the number of teachers retiring and the need for health care professionals across the country, we think it’s vital to provide these programs in Taos, particularly for students who might be called ‘place bound,’ that is, people who have families, or cultural ties, or limited resources, or for whatever reason don’t want to move out of the area.”
UNM-Taos also broke ground this past year on the Center for Early Care Education and Family Support, and the Career Technical Center at Klauer. When completed, these buildings will add 6,000 square feet of space, three computer labs and more distance education classrooms to interact with six area high schools. The child care facility, built with local, state and federal support, will serve children from four months to four years of age. Because 70% of UNM-Taos students are female, and a good number of those are single moms, being able to provide early intervention and quality child care along with educational opportunities for parents and children alike is key to the mission of the college.
The dual enrollment program, which also serves all six area high schools, also makes a significant contribution in terms of offering both academic and career tech courses.
“These classes aren’t just for advanced placement students. Dual enrollment is for all students across the board no matter what their academic aspirations are,” Dr. O’Neill explained. “We’ve looked at studies nationally and students who take college credits in high school are more likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to go on to attend college. So we are happy to work with high school students from Raton to Cimarron to Penasco to Mesa Vista.”
“There’s just an amazing variety of things going on for a school this size.”
Dr. O’Neill outlined some of the other 2007 events and initiatives. The Academy of Literacy and Cultural Studies was created. The student newspaper, The Taos Times, is now up and running online. The Howl, UNM-Taos’s literary magazine, put out its second edition. Students took trips to Peru and the silk road in China. And last summer, newly appointed UNM President David Schmidly chose UNM-Taos as the first branch campus he visited, and became the first UNM president ever to pay an official visit to Taos Pueblo.
Thanks to Team Everest and internationally known motivational speaker Gary Guller, UNM-Taos had its first big benefit at the TCA in August. It was the kickoff for Dr. O’Neill’s tenure as the new director, and they packed the house with a message of inclusion, spirit and diversity.
“One of the most significant initiatives that we kicked off last year was an exciting plan for a new natural resources program specifically designed for Taos Pueblo,” O’Neill added. “Just a couple of weeks ago I signed a memorandum of agreement with Taos Pueblo formalizing in writing a dozen areas that we are committed to working on together. That’s historic.
“We have also come to an agreement brokered by the Secretary of Higher Education to designate Penasco and Mesa Vista as dual service areas; both UNM-Taos and Northern will now provide services to students in these areas.
“Then there’s our ‘infamous infrastructure’. Thanks to the El Valle Sanitation District voters, we will put our sewer and water lines out to bid in January, award those contracts in February, and start construction in March. We hope to have those completed by next summer in time for the buildings to open in the fall of ’08. This infrastructure will set the stage for campus growth for years to come.”
“This is really the community’s college.”
Other ongoing projects at UNM-Taos include a five year strategic plan and continuing emphasis on renewable energy, green building and sustainability, most notably exemplified by the solar array that Kit Carson Electric Coop will install in the spring. It will provide about 80% of power needs for the Klauer campus.
Last year adjunct instructors received a long awaited pay increase, and a fundraising campaign for faculty development has been launched to raise $15,000.00 locally. If successful, the state will match it with another $50,000.00.
It has been a busy year filled with challenges. What does the future hold? Dr. O’Neill sums it up:
“I think everybody recognizes that we need to pull together for education in this community. I see that from the business community, from elected officials and from the community at large. As people come to understand that this is really the community’s college, there is no limit to what we can achieve—together.”