WHO WE SERVE The Students of Bridges Project for Education

For nearly two decades, Bridges Project for Education has leveraged a small staff and limited resources to help thousands of Taos County students imagine themselves into the future. Person by person, meeting by meeting, Bridges has helped students pursue their dreams by unlocking the doors to postsecondary education.

College access is a community issue, Bridges knows. Inequality hurts us all. And so they take steps to level the playing field by demystifying the process, identifying resources, sharing information, and helping students find their way forward in education and life.

Who are the students Bridges serves? The answer is simple and revolutionary: EVERYBODY.

While other programs restrict their scope to serving certain populations, Bridges welcomes anyone with the desire to move forward with postsecondary education. By the middle of 2017, they'd conducted more than 3000 individual meetings with students—all free of charge--and reached thousands more through community outreach events.

Thomas Tafoya attends Duke University in North Carolina

Students like Thomas Tafoya. The first in his family to attend college, Thomas credits the personalized approach of Bridges for "keeping him on track" throughout the application process and giving him the edge he needed to reach his college goals. "Bridge was a great experience for me and my family. We had no idea what the process entailed. We just had no idea."

"When you're working with Bridges, they get to know you personally, so they're able to help you tell your story. It's a really important part of the process. If we could get more people like Joleen and Sue who can work with the students more personally, to be able to help them tell their stories, I think it could make a huge difference."

His parents concur. As eager as they were for their children to attend college, neither of Thomas's parents had experienced it themselves. "It's scary for parents," Amanda, Thomas's mom, confessed. "But for me, the happiness that [my kids] show me, takes all the pain away."

Working with Bridges, she said, was like having "architects of the process. They laid out a plan, and they helped us to continue along the way that we wanted our son to go to college." She added, "Bridges didn't judge you for not going to college. They made it a very safe and nice environment. You didn't feel belittled if, as a parent, you didn't do those things." Now a student in economics at Duke University, Thomas urges other Taos youth to take advantage of the help Bridges offers to explore their college options.

There's no single image of a Bridges client, and no one-size-fits-all approach to the students they serve. But, while they welcome all, Bridges' primary mission is focused on helping first generation, lower income, and minority students: the group with the highest need. Research shows that students in these groups are two thirds less likely to pursue postsecondary education than their equally qualified peers. This can have far-reaching effects for the workforce in economically-challenged areas like ours—and contributes to a disparity between social groups that serves no one.

For Taos, the numbers are clear: more postsecondary education means greater economic opportunity.

Some college access programs, seeking to address this inequity, recruit the highest-achieving students in these groups and steer them toward elite colleges and universities. Bridges doesn't work that way. Clients aren't pressured into a track. Each student works individually with a Bridges counselor to chart the most beneficial path forward. And while Bridges is justly proud of students who've gained admittance to places like Georgetown and Duke, Harvard and Stanford and MIT, they're just as proud of the students they've helped acquire the skills and training to become chefs, medical technicians, machinists and dental assistants.

Whatever your age, your background, your income, your level of academic achievement, Bridges counselors are there to help you figure out the next step. They believe college shouldn't be off limits just because your parents didn't go, or your wallet says no, or the people who attend don't look like you.

Ruth lovato-dale
eddie berg

While the majority of Bridges' clients are high school students preparing for higher education, a significant number don't fit that profile. Some, like Ruth Lovato-Dale and Eddie Berg, bring years of valuable life experience with them when they decide to enter or return to college. Non-traditional students of all backgrounds—those new to college or returning after a hiatus, looking at opportunities to shift careers, or transitioning from domestic roles—are welcome at Bridges. Youth pursuing their high school equivalency credentials, incarcerated students, and pregnant and parenting youth are among Bridges' clients, too.

Santana Rael with her son Javan
"Bridges welcomed me with open arms. I think the program is so helpful, and it reaches so many people."

Santana Rael wasn't at all sure how her college dreams would work out. "When my son came along," she says, "all the stereotypes and labels got thrown at me. I hated that feeling. [But when] I went to see Joleen, it was like getting away from all that labeling. She saw me as, this is my client. Very respectful. Very professional. When you’re a young teenager and you get treated like an adult – it made me feel more comfortable."

Bridges believes that Taos County's strength lies in its diversity—and its inclusiveness.

"Working with Bridges was amazing," Santana says. "Joleen really helped me out a lot. At first when I was writing essays – it can get really personal. Joleen said, you have to tell your story. I said, I don't want to! People know I have a kid, I'm stereotyped for it, I'm labeled for it, and it's awful." But owning her own story—recognizing the strength, commitment and determination she showed, and understanding how those qualities could translate across domains—helped her understand herself better.

While caring for her infant son, Santana graduated salutatorian of her class from Questa High School. Working with Bridges helped her land two scholarships from the LANL Foundation and a prestigious internship at the Los Alamos National Labs. Now a civil engineer-in-training at Los Alamos National Labs, Santana credits Bridges as instrumental to her success.

Thomas Tafoya's young cousins are already aiming toward higher education

A growing number of clients come to Bridges because another family member has been helped. Sisters follow brothers; parents follow children; husbands follow wives; friends refer friends. "I'm the eldest of four children, so there'll be three younger Tafoyas who will be also be going through the process," Thomas Tafoya promised. Inspired by her experience with Bridges, Santana encouraged and guided her husband Kiko through the process of furthering his education. When Bridges helps one student, the effect ripples broadly in our tight knit, family-focused community.

"I love this place. I think in many ways it nurtured things I really like about who I am, and what I value."--Mark Peralta-silva

Empowered by their own experience, and provided the tools and language to assist others, many Bridges clients become educational advocates for those whose futures matter to them.

In his spare time, Mark Peralta-Silva, Taos High School Class of 2009 and graduate of UNM's School of Law, volunteers to help other New Mexico residents find their way to law school. Now clerking with a federal district court judge in Las Cruces, Mark recognizes that not everyone has had the advantages he's had. And yet, as a high school senior, leaving Taos for Occidental College in California was no small feat.

Mark Peralta-Silva, second from left, with high school friends.

Mark's parents had been students together at New Mexico Highlands University, and when Mark came along, they left school to raise their family. They were eager for their sons to experience the benefits of a college degree, but why not stay close to home? Mark says, "I grew up in Taos and it was comfortable. And that's nice, that's a good thing, a very warm feeling." But, as much as he valued that experience, he wanted to see what other options might be open to him.

"Bridges taught me the power of mentorship, and what it can mean to get guidance from someone who's experienced life. It's so incredibly important to build [these kinds of] human relationships."

Mark had his heart set on attending college out of state. When he heard a presentation in school by Bridges Project for Education, he thought, "These are the people I need to work with, if I want to make that dream a reality." With help from Bridges' Sue Goldberg, Mark applied himself to the challenge--and was offered admission and financial aid to Occidental. But he was reluctant to disappoint his parents by leaving New Mexico.

Sue's colleague Joleen Montoya, Co-Director of Bridges Project for Education, had experienced much the same thing herself when, as a senior at Taos High, her parents expressed concerns about her choice of an out of state school. So Sue and Joleen sat down with Mark and his parents to talk it over. Bridges came to the table with no agenda, no wish to sway the outcome—just an honest desire to listen, and to help this family arrive at a decision they could all feel good about.

"If I were to look at who I was in high school, would I think that this is where I'd be, now?"

For now, with bachelor and law degrees in hand, Mark says, "I think I want to stay in New Mexico. I spent four years focusing on myself, doing a lot of good by myself, but then I thought about all the people who have helped me do that. When I thought about everyone who's been so helpful, and caring and loving, well... I came from New Mexico. And for other talented people, who may not feel like they can do it, but want it, I'd like to maybe help them."

In a region where the rate of children in poverty far exceeds the national average, Bridges recognizes that being able to pay for education is as necessary an element as gaining admittance.

The cost of college is the main thing high school sophomores worry about in Taos when they project their future as students, and the number one reason students leave college without completion. So Bridges helps students apply for the financial aid they deserve, tapping federal aid, private scholarships, subsidized loans, and other sources to cover the rising costs of tuition and expenses.

For the Khweis family, who emigrated from Palestine when eldest daughter Juman Khweis was a toddler, both applying to and affording college were daunting challenges. "When I was in high school and thinking about the college application process," Juman says, "I was just at a total and complete loss as to what to do." Although her family believes strongly in the power of higher education, navigating the system in a new country presented a host of difficulties.

It was my dream to go to Georgetown, because I wanted to study international affairs. [Without help from Bridges], there’s no way I would have gone to Georgetown. I really don’t think I would have tried applying for bigger schools. There were so many pieces of the puzzle, and if I didn’t have Sue as a support system and a resource, I just wouldn’t have tried."

While applying for financial aid can be an onerous process, it can mean the difference between graduating with little to no debt and leaving school with a heavy student loan burden--or, worse still, not being able to attend at all. With their extensive experience guiding students through the maze of applications, Bridges has had remarkable success guiding students toward the opportunities that best fit with their goals and temperaments. "We try to make it be about fit, not about selectivity," says Joleen Montoya-Dye.

Georgetown gave Juman their biggest international scholarship, and with local scholarships she was able to cover the remaining tuition.

Research tells us that college planning and preparation can't wait until students are ready to apply. Early engagement is vital. Recognizing the urgent need, in 2017 Bridges rearranged program priorities to launch College Connections, a pilot program to introduce youth .enhance opportunities, exposure, and awareness of college among younger students.

The bottom line? Regardless of the path students choose, Bridges helps ALL their clients to identify their strengths, interests and accomplishments; to explore options they may not have otherwise considered; and to put their best selves forward to reach the goals they select.

Bridges is a small 501 (c)(3) nonprofit supporting big dreams. Gifts of any size are appreciated and all contributions are tax-deductible. Additionally, your company might offer matching grants for donations you make.

Thanks to Kevin Rebholtz, Geraint Smith, Chris Dahl-Bredine, the Tafoya family, and others for the use of photographs in this presentation.

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