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You’re almost afraid to ask questions, and you don’t know
who to ask, anyway. So you get frustrated and you quit.”
For Marmon, the Graduation Project made good on its
promise to ease those frustrations. The atmosphere of the
project office was personal rather than bureaucratic, and it
was oriented toward problem-solving.
“They showed an interest in me,” Marmon said. “They
called me, they sent letters. Their message was, ‘You can do
this, and we will help you.’”
Danny Hernandez, another member of the first class of
returnees, said the experience was “like going from a class that
has 40 kids to a class that has ten. They knewmy name in the
office, and they stayed in touch. Actually, they practiced a little
light nagging that really helped.”
Marmon graduated inMay 2003, and Hernandez
expects to receive his degree this year. Marmon says she is
so enthusiastic about the Graduation Project that she has
become an informal recruiter with friends who have dropped
out. “I tell them, ‘If you need me to take you by the hand and
introduce you to the people in the office, I’ll do it.’ That piece
of paper (the diploma) is really important to me, and I’ve
learned howmuch it can mean to someone’s self-confidence.”
Several of the Graduation Project participants have
especially poignant stories. One young woman believed she
had actually graduated when, in fact, she had received an
“incomplete” in a single course necessary for a degree. When
she applied for a job she listed herself as a UNM graduate. Her
boss checked and could find no record of a degree.
She was about to be fired for lying when she was
contacted, coincidentally, by the Graduation Project. Staff
members arranged for her to re-take the course and helped to
smooth things over with the boss. She got her degree and kept
her job.
In other cases—about 300, in fact—project participants
have not actually attended classes at all. After entering the
program, they discovered they had already satisfied all the
requirements for a degree. Project staff members helped
themmove the paperwork through the bureaucracy, and they
And some participants need prodding. “Occasionally a
student will come back to school, take one class, and leave
again,” said one project staff member. “They may be only
three credit hours short of a degree. So we call him again and
ask, ‘What happened?’ We don’t give up.”
The descriptions of letter-writing, hand-holding and
problem-solving by the Graduation Project suggest an
elaborate enterprise conducted by a sizable staff. After all,
some 246 returned students are participating this year, and
virtually all of themwill lean on the office staff at one time or
But the project, in fact, operates on an extraordinarily
lean budget. Besides Stuart, who also oversees the university’s
evening and extension classes, the staff now consists of a
single project coordinator and two part-time student workers.
A study conducted three years ago concluded that the project
spent $530 per student, excluding tuition aid.
Vanessa Shields, the project coordinator, laughs when
asked how the small staff manages to convey such an
impression of personal service. “You get very detail oriented.
You take care of many small things,”
she said. Besides, she added,
everyone in the office has had his
or her own problems in working
toward a degree at the university.
“The compassion level is high, you
might say. Everybody knows what
it’s like,” she said.
The benefits of the program
extend not only to the returned
students but also to the state as a
whole, says university President
Caldera. The difference in earning
power between a high school
graduate and a college graduate
is dramatic, and higher wage earners pay higher taxes. In
addition, he said, the state legislature in NewMexico is
showing a renewed interest in getting the biggest bang for its
education buck.
“The legislature wants to see a systematic increase in our
six-year graduation rate. They’ve given us benchmarks, and
some of our funding will be contingent on meeting those
benchmarks,” he said. “A program like the Graduation Project
helps us along the road to meeting those goals.”
Across the nation, many state universities face problems
similar to NewMexico’s. Nationally, the six-year graduation
rate for public universities now averages about 54 percent,
according to a University of Oklahoma study, and this figure
has remained essentially flat over the last decade. But that
average conceals sharp disparities between universities.
University of New Mexico President Louis Caldera says the Graduation Project will
help meet legislative demands that the six-year graduation rate be increased.
“That piece of paper
(the diploma) is really
important to me, and I’ve
learned how much it can
mean to someone’s self-
—Linda Marmon, University
of New Mexico graduate