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Despite COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of students earn degrees and certificates

Graduates at Spring Valley's field house

Soon-to-be graduates get ready to walk across the stage at one of four commencements held May 7-8 at CMC’s Spring Valley campus. Photo by Stephanie Stocking

By Phil Dunn

Commencement at Colorado Mountain College is always a special day, but this year was different.

And, not different because students wore masks or because they had to physically distance. Different, in that commencement was not just a fleeting moment of joy. It was a triumphant celebration for hundreds of students who overcame hardship after hardship to get to this point.

Ski area operations graduates

CMC Leadville’s ski area operations graduates celebrate commencement by cranking some turns down the nearby Dutch Henry Hill just off campus on May 7. Photo by Andy Colwell

Students, who in the face of a devastating pandemic, ruthless wildfires and divisive civil unrest, had the courage to push forward and make this one of the largest graduating classes in the history of Colorado Mountain College.

Many students took advantage of more flexible class offerings and the CMC Responds initiative, which included waiving tuition, books and fees for the summer 2020 semester to help those affected by the pandemic.

“Life sometimes takes its turns unexpectedly, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, president & CEO of Colorado Mountain College. “I’m so proud of our students. They really turned a curveball of a year into a home run!”

College-wide, hundreds of students crossed the graduation stage to earn a variety of associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificates.

CMC Summit County: May 7 commencement

Graduate Javiar Pineda and Carrie Hauser

Colorado Mountain College Summit County graduate Javiar Pineda bumps elbows with CMC President Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser while receiving his bachelor’s degree in sustainability studies May 7 at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Photo by Matt Litt

Javier Pineda took his first college course through CMC’s concurrent enrollment program at Summit County High School. Later, Pineda applied to the sustainability studies program at the Summit campus and discovered a passion for the coursework and its real-world applications.

“I did not know the impact this degree would have on my life,” he said. “At first, I thought: just get a degree. Now, I have a scholarly affection for this field.” Now, Pineda plans to take an LSAT course next fall and apply to law school.

“Whatever I decide to do, CMC has prepared me well for the next chapter of my life,” he said.

Cyndy Dzib Ciau has always loved working with children. The Summit County native graduated with an Associate of Applied Science in early childhood education after becoming a CMC Mountain Scholar in 2019, an honor that connected her to a scholarship and a mentor for the rest of her academic career.

“Even when the pandemic hit, my mentor always found a way to meet with me and [Jennifer Besser] my counselor helped me be sure I was getting all the classes I needed,” said Ciau.

CMC Leadville: May 7 commencement

Fabian Jimenez, a Lake County High School senior, graduated with an Associate of Science degree. “I was able to pick more specific classes and be more school oriented,” said Jimenez. “It allowed me to figure out I wanted to be an engineer and know I was interested in environmental engineering.”

Jimenez was awarded the prestigious Boettcher Scholarship, a four-year, full-tuition and partial living expenses merit-based academic scholarship awarded to graduating Colorado high school students. He will attend Colorado School of Mines this fall.

Christian Bueng and Caitlin McCarthy

From left, CMC Leadville graduates Christian Bueng and Caitlin McCarthy during tassel turning the 2021 commencement ceremony on campus on May 7. Photo by Andy Colwell

After Caitlin McCarthy graduated high school in Massachusetts, she moved to Colorado to help build trails in the Salida area. That led to an AmeriCorps college scholarship and the Rocky Mountain Land Management internship at CMC.

The partnership program with the U.S. Forest Service allows CMC students to work a part-time paid internship while pursuing a related degree. McCarthy graduated on May 7 with an Associate of Applied Science in natural resource management and a certificate in advanced geographic information systems.

For Johnathan Rogers of Centennial, an experience as a summer camp counselor and the idea of being an outdoor recreation instructor is what brought him to CMC Leadville, where he instantly connected with faculty and staff.

“My biggest surprise was how easy it was to get involved with the CMC staff and instructors,” said Rogers, who earned an Associate of General Studies in outdoor recreation leadership “My previous concept of college was like the larger universities and not having personalized instruction. It was the opposite with CMC.”

CMC Vail Valley: May 7 commencement

Toby Baldwin, 48, of Gypsum, served in the U.S. Army Reserves in Iraq in 2004-05. But before he joined the military, Baldwin went to technical school and became a master electrician. He owned and then later sold a business.

“I wanted to do something that made a bigger difference,” Baldwin said.

He earned a certificate at the Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy at CMC Spring Valley in 2009 and an associate in criminal justice in 2018. Baldwin worked for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office for three years before joining the Avon Police Department.

He earned a Bachelor of Applied Science in leadership and management at the Vail Valley campus in the fall of 2020 and was included in the spring graduate list.“I thought CMC would be tough, and it can be,” Baldwin said. “But a lot of what I learned came from the practical hands-on things. I’m a very visual learner, and that worked well for me.”

Elena Fundurea

Elena Fundureanu could barely speak English when she arrived in the US from Moldova in 2006. At the CMC Vail Valley commencement on May 7, she was the top bachelor’s degree graduate. Photo by Dave Watson

Elena Fundureanu is originally from Moldova and is CMC Vail Valley’s top four-year degree student. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with an emphasis in accounting. That’s an impressive achievement, especially since she arrived in the United States in 2006 and barely spoke English.

Becoming fluent in English was important to her, so in 2008, she began taking a few language classes at the Vail Valley campus. “I struggled at first with learning English. My tutors saw how hard I was working and supported me all the way.”

When she decided she wanted more, her next goal was to earn her bachelor’s degree.

“I’ve worked hard, honestly,” she said. “I’ve had a great experience at CMC. Larry [Dutmer, college counselor] guided me in what I needed to do. And the faculty has been so helpful.”

CMC Spring Valley: May 7-8 commencements (included Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Center locations)  

Commencement student speaker Adele Craft, 21, of Carbondale, is no stranger to CMC. She took classes at the Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Spring Valley campuses and received her Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies.

Craft’s primary and secondary education consisted of a mix of public education, home- and self-schooling, with CMC playing a big part.

“I was 12 when I took a geology course with my dad at CMC and I was hooked,” Craft said.
Her first credit classes followed at 13. She graduated from Bridges High School with an associate degree in hand in 2017.

Adele Craft

Spring Valley student commencement speaker Adele Craft started taking classes at CMC when she was 12. She graduated with a bachelor’s in sustainability studies on May 8. Photo by Stephanie Stocking

“After these last eight to nine years of taking CMC classes, it’s both exciting and sad to graduate,” Craft added. “CMC has definitely helped shape who I am now.”

Born in California, Norma Avila, 43, grew up in Mexico. Her son, David, 23, has a learning disability and worried he would not get the support he had at Aspen High School if he went on to college. “So, I told him I would go to CMC with him,” Norma said. “We helped each other.”

A second son, Abraham, 21, also graduated from CMC. He plans to continue his education at the University of Denver.

At Spring Valley, all three Avilas – Norma, Abraham and David – earned degrees. Norma Avila received an associate degree in bookkeeping and plans to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at CMC. “Going to college has changed my life and I hope my story helps inspire other parents,” Avila said.

2021 Spring Valley commencement

Physically distanced and masked up at one of four commencement at CMC’s Spring Valley campus. Photo by Ed Kosmicki

Cody Andrew first enrolled in CMC classes in 2012. “I was on my own financially, and I came in without much drive and motivation to finish,” he said.

The first thing Andrew did was secure a full-time job at the Spring Valley campus dining hall. While working toward a degree in graphic arts, he also learned to cook.

In 2015, he left CMC to cook professionally though art, his true calling, compelled Andrew to returned to CMC to complete his degree in professional photography.

“Making fine art is a passion,” he said. “The amenities of the photography department at CMC are the best in the state, and the teachers always pushed me to do better.”

CMC Steamboat Springs: May 8 commencement

Eleysa Schofield received her bachelor’s degree in business administration and an associate degree in Business. A first-generation student, Schofield credited the financial assistance she needed with making her college education possible.

“As a scared teenager trying to figure that out, it was hard to navigate,” Schofield said. “But CMC really helped.”

Schofield considered her two years as the Student Government Association’s student body president as a highlight. And, she capped off her CMC experience by being named as this year’s student commencement speaker for bachelor’s degree recipients.

Schofield hopes to earn a master’s degree in the near future. “Being part of CMC has been priceless.”

Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, Janisha Williams and Steamboat campus dean Dr. JC Norling at CMC Steamboat’s 2021 commencement on May 8. Photo by Dave Watson

Janisha Williams, from Miami Florida, is earning an associate degree in ski and snowboard business. “Growing up, my parents were very supportive of me,” said Williams, who now calls Steamboat Springs home. “When I had an interest in snowboarding, they didn’t put up barriers.”

As a non-traditional student, she enrolled at CMC Steamboat Springs and will walk this May, but she has a few credits to finish up this fall. Once her degree is official, she will be the first female African-American student to graduate from the ski and snowboard business program.

“Diversity in this industry is very important to me and I hope my example can be an inspiration for others,” said Williams. “But I also think the cultural shift in this industry needs to come from a place of kindness. We need to learn to treat each other with respect.”

When Pike James Wipperfurth graduated from Steamboat Springs High School, he was ready for a change. Immediately after graduation, he flew to Uganda on a service trip.

“I was dropped into an environment where everything was completely different,” said Wipperfurth. “That kind of woke me up.”

Pike Wipperfurth

Pike James Wipperfurth gave the student speech at the CMC Steamboat Springs commencement on May 8. Photo by Dave Watson

The experience ignited a passion in Wipperfurth to help others, which lead him to CMC Steamboat Springs. He earned his EMT certificate in 2017 and then began working as a ski patroller. A few years later he made the choice to switch careers, earning degrees at CMC in political science, anthropology and outdoor education this May. He was also named a student commencement speaker.

After graduation, Wipperfurth is transferring to Colorado State University, where he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science. “You don’t necessarily have to follow pathways that may have been built for you in your past,” he said. “Take control of your own destiny.”

CMC Rifle: May 8 commencement

Bianca Godina of Silt graduated on May 8 with an associate degree in communication. “It was really important for me to make a connection with my professors because I learn better that way,” she said. “I like to ask questions, so the small class size at CMC Rifle made it easier.”

Economics played a role as well. While working two jobs, Godina was able to receive scholarships and grants, which helped her purchase her first computer.

Over the course of the past year, Godina has served as a campus peer mentor and has also been a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. She graduated with a 3.9 grade point average. 

MaDonna McAllister, 54, of Parachute worked as a hairdresser for 20 years until she was offered a scholarship at CMC. Taking classes part-time, McAllister earned her Associate of General Studies degree.

However, her biggest challenge was dealing with past trauma as a survivor of domestic violence as a youth. “The abuse affected my language and my writing, so I had to work really hard on that,” she said.

McAllister excelled at CMC Rifle, even finishing some semesters with a 4.0 GPA. “I made it through with help from some great instructors,” she said.

“We have been cheering for MaDonna since she first walked through our doors in 2015,” said Tinker Duclo, vice president and campus dean at CMC Rifle. “Her unrelenting dedication and perseverance have earned her a college degree.”