Mission: Graduate Expands Reach

Story by the Albuquerque Journal.

Gilbert Turrietta tried college once, but life complicated things.

The financial responsibility of raising a family derailed his HVAC studies at Santa Fe Community College, he says.

Now the 52-year-old is ready to try again, and will this fall start a diesel mechanic program at Central New Mexico Community College. He intends to get his Automotive Service Excellence certification – possibly followed with an associate degree – and ultimately replace his minimum-wage recycling center job with work that can pay upward of $50 an hour.

“You’re only going to go so far in certain jobs,” he said. “My goal is to start my own business. I have nieces I want to take care of.”

Turrietta set his new course with the help of Graduate! ABQ, an effort to get adults into – or back to – college. It’s a new function of Mission: Graduate, a 10-year movement housed at United Way of Central New Mexico that aims to bolster the Albuquerque area’s college-educated ranks by 60,000 by 2020.

“I would say this is targeting anyone who’s maybe on a nontraditional path,” said Mission’s executive director, Angelo Gonzales, specifically citing adults who finished high school but went no further.

Graduate! ABQ “coaches” work out of the New Mexico Workforce Connection office in Albuquerque and help clients identify college programs that suit their individual needs and interests, enroll and tap into support networks on campus.

They also help find financial resources, offering assistance with paperwork like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and identifying grant programs that might apply.

Sometimes, it’s “about navigating the system,” said Dan Mendelsohn, Graduate! ABQ coordinator, the program’s primary coach. He previously worked for a Boston-based nonprofit that helps students find affordable paths to a college education.

With Graduate! ABQ, Mendelsohn will also help counsel clients with broader financial and budget plans so that a costly hiccup – like a car breakdown – will not interrupt their schooling.

The program brings together several partners, including New Mexico Workforce Connection Central Region, New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, the city of Albuquerque, CNM and the University of New Mexico. The collaboration allows for what Gonzales called “warm handoffs” into schools – sending students to known individuals or programs for help.

“Research consistently demonstrates if an individual has relationships with people they trust in their school, their chances for success increase dramatically,” Gonzales said at a news conference announcing the initiative Thursday.

The program began a pilot phase in February and has since worked with about 50 clients, Mendelsohn said. Grants support its current $100,000 budget, and Gonzales said he expects to see it grow.

Now halfway into its 10-year plan, Mission: Graduate reported this week that it had achieved a little more than a quarter of its graduation target. Noted headwinds include declining enrollment at New Mexico colleges and universities, specifically among those 25 and older.

But CNM already works heavily with that population. President Kathie Winograd said Thursday that the average age of a CNM student is about 30.

“Those individuals are so incredibly important to us in terms of the mission of our college, but they’re important to the mission of our community,” she said. “The opportunity to build our economic base, the opportunity to have the social fabric of our city and our state be improved every single day by giving people an opportunity to change their lives is a wonderful thing.”

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