Scholars from the mountains

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SUMMIT COUNTY – Susan Propper and her husband Don Dankner are retired Washington, D.C., attorneys. They moved to Breckenridge permanently in 2010 after spending several decades as part-time residents here.

From left, mentor Susan Propper, student Ryan Shepherd and Shepherd’s mentor Don Dankner meet at CMC Breckenridge. In addition to being a first-generation college student, Shepherd works full-time at the college.

As full-time locals and lifelong learners, they and their friend Sharon Koblinsky, a retired IBM executive, registered for classes at Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge and Dillon. During classes, they noticed that a number of students were showing up without the textbooks listed on course syllabi and could use a mentor.

They sensed that some local students whose families had little experience in higher education were lacking a web of support to help them reach their educational goals. As a result, they proposed to the CMC Foundation and CMC a pilot mentoring program for first-generation college students. In return for agreeing to meet with a mentor regularly, students would receive free textbooks. Initially, the program had seven to eight students.

This was the beginning of a volunteer mentoring program at CMC Breckenridge and Dillon. Unlike tutors, mentors don’t focus on academic assistance. Instead, Colorado Mountain College pairs a local mentor with a Summit County student. The mentor’s role is to be an informed source of empathy and inspiration and to help the student navigate available resources.

Koblinsky and student Flor Cruz Valdez were one of the first mentor-mentee pairings. Cruz Valdez, the first in her family to attend college, graduated from CMC with an associate degree in 2015 and a bachelor’s degree in business in 2018. She is now an academic advisor and senior enrollment services specialist at CMC Dillon.

Sharon Koblinsky and graduate Flor Cruz Valdez

From left, CMC mentor Sharon Koblinsky and 2018 bachelor’s degree graduate Flor Cruz Valdez share a laugh after graduation for CMC Breckenridge and Dillon. Pairing community leaders with students is part of the college’s Mountain Scholars program. Photo Charles Engelbert

“It’s a steady relationship built on trust,” said Cruz Valdez. “Mentors provide such a positive influence for students.”

Mountain Scholars grows

It took community leadership – plus partnerships with Colorado Mountain College, the Summit School District and philanthropic organizations such as The Summit Foundation, which provided financial support – to develop an even broader comprehensive program just for Summit County students.

In 2018, Mountain Scholars, which combines the mentoring program with scholarship assistance and help transitioning to a bachelor’s degree, was born as a Special Initiative of The Summit Foundation. Today, students accepted into the program are connected with CMC Pathways Coordinator Andrea Walker, with support from CMC College Counselor Jennifer Besser. They connect Mountain Scholars with the support they need not only to start college, but also to finish.

“Having this backstop is critical,” said Propper, one of the trio that started the textbook fund. “We don’t let these students drop off the radar screen, so as mentors we can reach out. And they have the backup here on campus with Andrea and Jenn. These students’ chance of success skyrockets.”

Students accepted in the program are the first in their families to attend college with the goal of earning a bachelor’s degree, which is known as a first-generation student.

“Data shows that first-generation students are more likely to drop out, and they may or may not come back to college if they leave,” said Summit Foundation Executive Director Jeanne Bistranin. “It’s different for students in Mountain Scholars. They are up to three times as likely to complete their degrees due to the additional support provided.”

To become a Mountain Scholar, students must demonstrate they are resilient, academically motivated and committed to maintaining a strong grade point average. Although many are Summit High School graduates who are referred through a pre-collegiate program, students who have lived and are involved in the Summit County community for at least two years are also eligible.

The missing link

Ryan Shepherd, 35, is the facilities manager for CMC in Summit County, as well as being a Mountain Scholar. Paired with mentor Don Dankner, he says the program has been invaluable to him, as he works toward completing two psychology degrees: an associate degree at CMC and a Bachelor of Arts at Regis University. He is also researching master’s programs.

“This support provides a link that’s missing in many people’s education,” said Shepherd.

The Summit Foundation provides designated scholarships to students accepted into the program. Students attend CMC for their first and second year of college, and can either stay at CMC Breckenridge or Dillon, where they’ll continue to be eligible for scholarships and services, or transfer to another Colorado college or university to complete their degrees. Even if they leave CMC, their mentorship program can and often does continue.

“With CMC’s affordability, students here can save their money, receive mentoring and have the other support that Mountain Scholars provides,” Bistranin said.

In return, Mountain Scholars form solid connections to Colorado Mountain College. In addition to mentorships, they receive academic coaching, degree and career counseling, and financial and transfer assistance, according to CMC’s Walker.

Summit County high school students or residents who would like more information about Mountain Scholars can visit coloradomtn.edu/mountain-scholars, or contact CMC’s Jenn Besser at 970-989-5806 or jebesser@coloradomtn.edu.