Whether as a new high school graduate, or a non-traditional student, stepping foot on a college campus for the first time can be a daunting challenge. And when students aren’t sure if they are ready to tackle the academic world, there are programs and people at UNM who are ready to support them.

People like Laura Valdez – who experienced this support first-hand when she attended a College Enrichment Program two-week summer program before her first semester at UNM. She remained a part of the program throughout college, and she credits the program’s staff for not only playing a key role in her remaining in, and graduating from, college, but also in inspiring her to help following generations of students.

“The mission of the program was to help students with anything that they needed, a 360-degree type of assistance for students. They were helping low income and first generation students in general, there’s no one in the family to go to to problem solve or overcome obstacles that are faced.”

While working at the Dean of Students office, Valdez was able to relate to the problems that many of the lower income and first generation UNM students who would visit the office were dealing with in addition to their studies. Problems ranging from medical issues to family problems, things that had the potential to derail a promising academic career.  And she was determined to help many of these students from being left behind on their collegiate journey.

“One that stands out in my mind was a student who was on his bicycle, on his way to soccer practice, where he was a coach for a team. It started to rain so he stopped under a tree to stay dry, and lightning struck the tree. So the student had to learn how to do everything for himself again. So I mainly worked with his mom because the student wasn’t able to speak, or have any motor functions for a while.”

Now a leader with UNM’s University College Advising Center, when Valdez walks around UNM and sees the number of first-generation college students striving to become first-generation college graduates, she’s reminded of the important role the university plays in their lives, and to the state as a whole.

“UNM is important in stimulating the state’s economy and in preparing our citizens. If you look at APS, how many of those teachers have been educated at UNM? Or if you look at our legislators, how many of them have come through the University of New Mexico. I think geographically we are in the center of the state, we’re in the largest city, so it’s important for us to step up and be leaders, to help prepare our citizens.

“A lot of states have a hierarchy within their academic institutions, with their flagships being very selective. I think UNM still tries to serve all New Mexicans, and not just those who are in the top 10 percent. Usually those with means are able to invest in high schools, test scores and tutoring to help raise them into that top 10 percent.”