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CMC Summit County Katherine Lena celebrates at graduation.

Katherine Lena celebrates collecting her associate degree in science at CMC Summit County’s commencement May 3. Photo Charles Engelbert

By Heather McGregor

For at least three of the students who graduated from Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge and Dillon Friday, May 3, their associate degrees will be a valuable springboard toward a bachelor’s degree.

Nancy Higuera Merino plans to go on to earn a bachelor’s in psychology at Colorado State University. Anael Castillo is transferring to Fort Lewis College to earn a bachelor’s in early childhood education. Daniel Molina Sotelo will stay in Summit County to earn a bachelor’s degree in leadership and management at CMC.

The students were among more than 1,000 receiving degrees and certificates from Colorado Mountain College this week, at 10 different graduation ceremonies held throughout the CMC district. The Summit County ceremony was held at the Keystone Conference Center. The graduation speaker was Dr. Justin Pollack, associate professor of life sciences, health, and wellness at Colorado Mountain College.

“It’s great that it was such an affordable option,” Higuera said of CMC’s program leading to an Associate of Arts degree. “I’m not in debt, I’m not broke and I have a great education under my belt.”

Castillo earned her associate degree in early childhood education, and Molina earned his associate degree in culinary arts.

Daniel Molina receives his degree.

From left, CMC Trustee Patty Theobold, graduate Daniel Molina and Dave Askeland, CMC Summit County vice president and campus dean at CMC Summit County’s commmencement May 3. Photo Charles Engelbert

As first-generation college grads, each found a way to lean on TRIO Student Support Services or the CMC Mentor Program to be successful as college students.

Programs at the Summit campus such as TRIO Student Support Services, the Mentor Program and the newly established Mountain Scholars work with participants to help students remain in college, stay in good academic standing and graduate or transfer to a four-year college or university.

“I don’t have anybody in my home life to help me figure out these things, like financial aid and studying,” said Higuera. “It left me with a lot of questions. I am thankful for the pre-collegiate program in high school and TRIO at college. I truly don’t think I could have achieved this without that support.”

Support, grit bring success

Anael Castillo

Anael Castillo ultimately wants to run her own bilingual kindergarten. She received her associate degree in early childhood education. Immediate plans are to earn a bachelor’s degree. Photo Charles Engelbert

TRIO and the Mentor Program helped Higuera, Castillo and Molina navigate college, but all three relied on a strong work ethic to support themselves while studying.

Higuera, 20, of Silverthorne, works for her sister’s company, cleaning offices in the early morning and evening hours, cleaning homes during the midday, and delivering groceries in the afternoon. She concentrated her classes on two or three days per week, taking those days off as she balanced school and work.

Higuera is working toward a career in criminal justice. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she expects to go on to law school, and hopes to have a career with the FBI, CIA or Drug Enforcement Administration.

Castillo, 20, lives in Kremmling, which is outside the CMC district but within its service area, and commuted 50 miles to classes in Breckenridge. Even though she paid the slightly higher in-service-area rate rather than in-district tuition, studying at CMC still made good economic sense.

“It was close to home,” Castillo said. “It was probably the best decision of my life.” She worked for her mother’s in-home daycare and interned with a preschool in Kremmling while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

Preparing for the future

Molina, 21, jumped into CMC’s culinary arts program straight out of Summit High School, where he got a taste for professional cooking through the ProStart program. CMC’s award-winning Culinary Institute notched up the heat with a demanding load of classes and apprentice work in the kitchens at Keystone Resort.

“I think it’s really fun. I love the intensity of it,” said Molina, now that he’s finished his sophomore year. His freshman year, he recalled, was intimidating.

“I didn’t do that well in high school, but I got my stuff together. After the first year, I was comfortable,” he said.

Molina joined a CMC team that took first place at the state culinary competition, and by May he expects to earn his sous chef certification.

He will cook all summer at Keystone Ranch and start classes again this fall toward earning CMC’s Bachelor of Applied Science in leadership and management.

“I want to get more of a feel for what it’s like to run a business. Long-term, I definitely want to start my own restaurant, a taco spot, or maybe something else,” he said.

Castillo has a business dream as well. She hopes to open and run a private bilingual kindergarten.

“I could stop here,” she said of her associate degree, “but that’s not going to fulfill my dream. I really want that bachelor’s degree, and I may get my master’s. I want to be as educated as I can, to really know what I am doing, and to be the best teacher possible for the future generation.”