WE ARE BRIDGES Celebrating Twenty Years of Bridges Project for Education

For 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.

You may be surprised by how broad a spectrum of students the Project serves. Throughout the year, we'll be spotlighting various Bridges alums. Diverse in background, in aim, and in age, the clients of Bridges Project represent the collective face of this region. They share one thing: a desire to improve their lives by taking intentional steps to prepare for the future.

What's up, Bridges?

In this presentation, we tackle some questions people have asked about Bridges Project. Questions like, What does Bridges do? and How do they do it? We'll explore Why do we need it here?  We'll share what we know about the impact Bridges has made over its twenty years of operation. Still curious? Come to the Bridges Project website and sign up for notifications to find out more!


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.

"The original mission is alive and well," says Sue Goldberg, former Co-Director of Bridges Project. "This is what we do: we help one person at a time through this process. And there is no recipe because each person is different. Each path is unique."

No recipe, true—but Bridges has a powerful system for making sure each client gets the kind of help they need. Behind the scenes, they've worked hard to develop a comprehensive and effective program to achieve results. They pay close attention to cutting-edge research and national trends. Coupling the wisdom born of long local experience with their deep knowledge of the values and traditions of our people here, Bridges has refined a three-pronged strategy for their work.

Intensive, individualized counseling. The cornerstone of the process is an intensive focus on the unique needs of each student. Bridges has created a Comprehensive Counseling Model, continually responsive to changing trends in college admissions, to guide their individualized sessions. These sessions help students identify goals, chart steps, and stay on track as they assemble materials to meet multiple deadlines.

"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."

Students tell us that Bridges has played an essential role in helping them navigate the complex and confusing application process. For first generation students, the Bridges experience is even more crucial. Families can feel overwhelmed by the college application process, and parents, like their children, need support in learning how to navigate the system.

Thomas Tafoya, now a senior in economics at Duke University, is the first in his family to attend college.

Sharing information. In addition to individualized counseling, Bridges offers a slate of outreach offerings. Sharing information this way, Bridges is able to expand their reach beyond the 100+ students funding permits them to directly counsel each year. Just as valuably, they stretch the window of focus on college from the final two years of high school to a much longer period.

Bridges outreach includes the following:

  • writing a monthly “Learning Curve” column in The Taos News;
  • presenting a college application overview to juniors at all area high schools, and offering similar presentations for community agencies;
  • posting regularly on our website and Facebook, with information about our organization and educational opportunities and scholarships for all types of students; and
  • supporting a newly restructured website which serves as a clearinghouse of resources for students, parents, educators and community agencies, encompassing all components of the higher education application and financial aid process.
Bridges Project hosted College Day for eight consecutive years.

Student development. While Bridges has always included outreach to younger students, the Taos High School Class of 2021 is the first cohort to experience College Connections, a new Bridges curriculum that supports students from eighth grade on through their senior year. Through this program, Bridges introduces age-appropriate information about post-secondary education, helps students identify their strengths, dreams and desires, and works with them to develop a clear understanding of the steps it will take to reach their goals.

“I think about how thankful I am with Bridges for coming into my classroom," says Hernando Chavez of Taos Middle School. "It’s so important for students to begin thinking about college at a young age. I was really impressed with the activities, organization and planning that went into each session. Students were engaged throughout and it was clear that many students now begin to see college as a reality."

...and beyond. Guiding students to the schools that will best suit their needs—academic, social, career-preparatory, and economic—is part of an overall strategy to help students complete their postsecondary education with competitive skills, healthy habits, and limited debt. But college completion rates are dangerously low among New Mexicans. Getting admitted to college is just part of the picture, Bridges knows. Helping students persist in their education so they can gain full advantage of its rewards is a complex process. It takes vision, resource sharing, and collaboration.

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

Community-level work. In late 2012, to improve data collection practices and increase communication between entities, Bridges secured a three-year grant to collaborate with UNM-Taos and the Taos Municipal Schools. At the close of the project, Bridges convened a community gathering to present the findings. More than 30 professionals participated, each engaged locally in support of higher education and related fields. In spite of working for years in the same arena, many had never met before this event. A new spirit of cooperation, communication, and shared purpose was exciting to witness. Read about it by following the link below.

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.

Thanks to their long service, distinguished track record, and cultivated neutrality, Bridges has earned the trust and respect of the community. To remain worthy of that, Bridges

  • stays abreast of change, integrating current research alongside a deep respect for local values and traditions;
  • invests in meaningful evaluation to measure their impact, identify areas to improve, and strategize for the future;
  • aligns their data systems with national measures for excellence and transparency;
  • collaborates with community partners, nurturing authentic relationships that address parallel issues of college readiness, persistence and completion; and
  • remains true to their original intention, expanding college access to all people in the Taos area so that college degrees do not remain a privilege for a select few.

Adult and GED students access Bridges services as well as those advancing directly from high school to post-secondary educational opportunities. These nontraditional students make up 25% of the 2700 clients Bridges has served since 1997.

More than half of all Bridges clients are first generation to college, and 70% of clients are of Hispanic or Native American heritage.

All students may access Bridges services free of charge.


For all its rich natural, cultural, and human resources, Taos can be a challenging place to grow up. The high rate of children in poverty—38% in 2015, significantly greater than the 30% figure statewide—correlates, as it does nationally, with a low level of educational attainment.

For many in Taos, education must take a back seat as families struggle to satisfy their basic needs. The lower tax base means local school systems have fewer funds to support college counselors, and parents whose transition to adulthood did not include college often find it difficult to guide their own children toward an unfamiliar experience. Without additional support, the cycle continues, with each generation increasingly marginalized by fewer options and opportunities.

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

Three facts add particular urgency.

  • By the year 2020, experts predict, 65% of the nation's jobs will require a career certificate or college degree. Currently? Fewer than 30% of our adults are likely to qualify.
  • Among degree holders in Taos County, white non-Hispanic residents outnumber Hispanic and others by a factor of three to one. Validated research confirms that disparities in college access disproportionately affect minority, lower-income and first-generation students, and we see that played out, grievously, in our own communities.
  • Surveys we've conducted with area sophomores show that students themselves overwhelmingly believe that college should be in their future. More than 90% confirmed that their parents want them to go to college, and 95% professed to believing that college could help them with their career and life goals. But many have little understanding of the steps it takes to get there.
"The crux of bridges work is personal and intimate and relationship-based. we look at big ideas and big goals and big hopes and dreams, and we break them down into little, achieveable steps."-Sue Goldberg

We know that early exposure to college opportunities—not merely as an abstract good, but as a real possibility to aim and prepare for—is unevenly present in Taos. More affluent students tend to be raised with the expectation of college. Parents who have themselves attended college may be more prepared to help their children develop college readiness. In spite of good intentions, many Taos students will not graduate with the coursework most colleges require.

Patchy information and scant advising around admissions and financial aid create a formidable barrier. Challenges paying for college and mixed messages about academic preparation can hinder even the most enthusiastic student.

By creating access to higher education for people of all ages, Bridges is leveling the playing field in Taos. As a result of Bridges' work, more first-generation, low-income, and minority students have overcome access barriers that have historically prevented them from pursuing college or vocational degrees. They have attended schools that are a good fit for their learning styles, future goals and life circumstances, with adequate financial resources. Bridges alumni describe the impact Bridges' assistance has had on their lives, and on the lives of those close to them. Bridges is helping to create a generation of educational advocates, whose influence will resonate widely.

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."


When Bridges started in 1997, a profound change in the social landscape had just begun. The national dialogue on equity in education was new, and the shift in the workforce was not yet fully evident. It took vision and courage to launch a program like this, and an acute sensitivity to local values and traditions to align programming with what we needed locally.

Bridges offered that—and continues to. By remaining small, independent, and responsive to change, they've lasted through a challenging twenty years for nonprofits in Taos, outlasting dozens of other organizations their size through a careful strategy of remaining true to their essential tenets and keeping their focus on students and families. They've earned the trust and respect of local Taoseños and of funders who have backed them since the start.

And the results are starting to show. While Bridges can't claim sole credit for the shift, they've been a key player in the steady increase in educational attainment among Hispanic families in Taos over the past decade. Census data from the American Communities surveys shows the gap narrowing between ethnicities with respect to educational attainment.

Santana Rael with her son Javan
"Bridges welcomed me with open arms," Santana recalls. "That's truly how I felt, how comfortable I felt working with them, in my situation.... [They were] able to answer general questions about college, starting from what is it? To how do I get in? To applications, scholarships, to financial aid – the whole 360."

The data strongly suggest an upward trend in college attendance and completion among long-time Taos Hispanic families that we do not see echoed in the population as a whole. From 2007 to 2014, the ratio of bachelor's degree holders of Hispanic ethnicity to white non-Hispanic shifted from 1:4 to 1:3. In many or most cases, these students are the first in their family to earn a degree.

Even more promising, census figures show that, for Taos County Hispanics, in particular, increased educational attainment correlates strongly with a greater likelihood of employment.

For Taos, the numbers are clear: more postsecondary education means greater economic opportunity. The trend toward greater ethnic equity has begun—but there's still a significant distance to travel before true equity is achieved.


We've heard it again and again. And it's true. Not everyone does. Not everybody wants to. Not every student who completes high school is ready for the experience of college. Not every person thrives in the atmosphere of conventional education. Life is full of opportunities for learning, and college is just one route to a successful, fulfilling, meaningful future.

But taken on a larger scale, the data speak clearly. The advantages that accrue to those with a college education are profound. Workplace skills and job opportunities are obvious benefits, but differences in income differential, health advantages, community engagement via voting and volunteering, and self-assessed happiness are some of additional metrics used to examine the pluses of post-secondary education.

Bridges honors all paths. Their program is founded on the belief that each person is right to advocate for her own best interests, his own freedom to choose.

The fear that local students will leave Taos for college and stay away for lack of good jobs should not be dismissed lightly. But census data shows the largest jump in employment, in the most recent decade of data, in residents of Hispanic background who hold bachelor's degrees or higher. The jobs seem to be there. With qualified workers to fill them, more are likely to arise. Our own students may create them, generating opportunity for those who follow.

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

Post-secondary education can confer more than economic gain, as well. It can develop an appreciation for literature, music, art. It can teach us to appreciate our local history, our local culture, the plants and animals and processes that power our local ecosystem. It can offer guidance and practice in critical and creative thinking, making students more astute citizens, consumers, and inventors. It can engage them in entrepreneurial adventures and expose them to challenges that develop valuable habits and expand their sense of what's possible. It can be fun. It can be painful. It can be the best thing or it can be a big snooze. But it won't be any of these things if students are systematically excluded from the experience.

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 moving forward with a bold new initiative. By launching College Connections alongside their trademark counseling and information-sharing services, they aim to reach more of the students who need them at an earlier age. But expanding their offerings means increasing the budget. They need to scale up staff, enhance collaborations with partnering schools and agencies, and expand their evaluation capacity to properly measure their effectiveness.

A capacity-building grant from a committed funder has given them a head start. Now, though, they need to develop dependable revenue sources that will support ongoing student development, while maintaining the same level of excellence with their comprehensive counseling model. They need an adequate budget to work with parents, partners and allies to support student access to and success within their postsecondary educational choices.

Everyone's contribution helps. Whether it's a one-time, $10 donation, a pledge to "adopt" a class for College Connections, or anything in between, every dollar invested in Bridges goes toward expanded opportunities for Taos students.

Please sign up for Bridges' email updates to stay informed about what's new. There are groups and events in the works for Bridges alumni, informational sessions for prospective donors, and programming being prepared to help each of us support the students in our own circles who are aiming toward or currently in college. With support to conduct more comprehensive data-tracking, too, Bridges can collaborate with other local agencies and organizations to help students complete their degree or certificate programs and graduate with less debt and more opportunity.

Whatever your comfort level, please stay connected. Working together with Bridges, we can help Taos students imagine—and realize—the future they deserve.

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 Nina Anthony, Chris Dahl-Bredine, Kevin Rebholtz, Geraint Smith, the Tafoya family, and others for the use of photographs in this presentation. This Spark presentation was created by i2i Institute for Bridges Project for Education.

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