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Towaoc college fair seeks to broaden students’ horizons

Colleges, employers seek to recruit students

About 40 colleges and businesses were represented Wednesday at the Ute Mountain Learning Center College and Career Fair, where Native American high school students came to get a glimpse of life after graduation.

Held at the Ute Mountain Casino, the annual fair is organized by the tribe’s higher education department and regularly features local colleges, the Cortez Workforce Center, various tribal departments and financial aid programs designed to help Ute Mountain Ute students. On Wednesday, dozens of students from Cortez High School and Southwest Open School visited the fair, along with numerous adults looking for jobs. Organizer Scott Baker, director of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Department of Higher Education, said the fair is a way to help students who may not be aware of the higher education options available to them.

Since Towaoc doesn’t have its own school system, most Ute Mountain Ute teens attend the Montezuma-Cortez High School. But Baker said a college fair on the reservation is more accessible for some tribal students than similar events in Cortez.

“Cortez’s RE-1 School District provides a number of opportunities for kids to connect with colleges and career pathways,” he said. “However, we were finding that many of our kids weren’t using those.”

He said it can be harder for Ute kids to gain work experience in high school, since entry-level jobs on the reservation are scarce. Several organizations represented at the fair have programs designed to help change that – whether through the Cortez Workforce’s tuition assistance programs, or dual enrollment classes at colleges around the Four Corners.

Meredith Benally, an administrative assistant at the Navajo Technical University site in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, said there are eight Ute high school students currently taking dual enrollment classes at her college, and she hopes to recruit more. Navajo Tech particularly targets Towaoc, she said, because it is home to the Weeminuche Construction Authority, a large potential employer for tribal students.

“We want to be able to certify their welders and their electricians and carpenters,” she said. “That way they’re able to show a background, rather than just showing up on the job with nothing and trying to get experience.”

Larger colleges were also represented at the fair, including Colorado State University and Utah State University, as well as Montezuma County’s own Southwest Colorado Community College and Durango’s Fort Lewis College.

Baker said his ultimate goal for the college fair is to find a tribal member who can take over his job.

“I’ve always seen myself as a pretty temporary fix,” he said. “I believe personally that in the long run, tribal members are going to make better decisions concerning tribal operations than anybody else.”

The tribal council, he said, is constantly looking for qualified Utes to hire in government positions, but it doesn’t always have the resources to train people for those jobs. Baker said the tribe has suffered significant budget cuts recently.

Several tribal government departments, including human resources and education, brought representatives to the fair to explain their hiring process to students. Baker also advertised the grant-funded workforce development programs he organizes at the Ute Mountain Learning Center, which offers weekly classes in skills like customer service, work ethics and writing resumes and cover letters.

For Charles Lehi, Roman Montoya and Hanley Frost, all seniors at SWOS, the fair proved to be an eye-opener.

“There’s a lot of information about what I want to do, and that’s being a physical therapist,” Montoya said. “I found a lot of good information on that, along with psychiatry and stuff like that, too.”

Montoya said he was impressed by the amount of financial aid available to Native Americans at some nearby local colleges. Lehi, who wants to go into automotive engineering, said he came to the fair to find out “how far (he) could go” with his interest in cars, and said he would leave with several new college options in mind.

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