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New Mexico State University to offer programs at Pueblo of Acoma

Students at the Pueblo of Acoma soon will be able to earn New Mexico State University degrees without leaving home.

New Mexico State University President Michael Martin, center, prepares to sign a memorandum of understanding between the university and the Pueblo of Acoma with Marvis Aragon, right, first lieutenant governor of Acoma. Looking on at left is Harold Felipe, an NMSU-Grants business student from Acoma Pueblo. (Photo by Kurt Nimmo)

ls of the pueblo and the university have formalized a partnership designed to increase the enrollment, retention and academic achievement of students from the pueblo, as well as other American Indian students in the area.

A major part of the agreement is the establishment of an extended learning center on the Acoma reservation that will offer degree programs through a combination of technology-based distance education and on-site instruction.

"Some of our working people here at Acoma can't afford to go away to school," said Lloyd Tortalita, education director for the pueblo. "This will make it possible for some of us to attend school right here at home."

The pueblo will provide a building for the learning center. NMSU, in a collaboration between the main campus in Las Cruces and the NMSU-Grants campus, will equip the center with computer classrooms and provide the academic programs.

A memorandum of understanding formalizing the agreement was signed at Acoma on Wednesday by Acoma 1st Lt. Gov. Marvis Aragon, NMSU President Michael V. Martin and NMSU-Grants Interim Executive Officer Martin Parks. Acoma Gov. Fred Vallo Sr. was attending an event in Washington, D.C.

"It is our responsibility to clear the path for our young people and for those that are yet unborn," Aragon said. "Education at Acoma is more than the classes students take. It is truly the preservation of a people."

Acoma Business Enterprises (ABE), which operates the pueblo's hotel, casino and other businesses, will pay 75 percent of the tuition costs for any ABE employee who takes courses at the new education center, said Prudy Correa of ABE's Human Resources office.

"In our succession planning for Acoma Pueblo, we want to educate our people for top management positions," said Correa, an NMSU graduate who helped bring about the agreement. "That is the reason to get an education program started here so that students can get their bachelor's and masters degrees here."

Harold Felipe, an ABE employee and NMSU-Grants business student, expects to be one of the first students to take advantage of classes at the pueblo. "It's an exciting day for our community as a whole and a special opportunity for me, because it brings education to my doorstep," Felipe said at the signing ceremony.

The center also will mean more education options for other American Indian students in the area, including those attending the NMSU-Grants campus and those from the Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo communities of Pine Hill and Tohajillee, said Kate Carter, distance education coordinator for NMSU-Grants.

"The most exciting thing about this project is its collaborative nature," Carter said. "The Acoma Pueblo, Acoma Business Enterprises, the NMSU main campus and the NMSU-Grants campus have all worked together and this project has moved very quickly."

Carmen Gonzales, NMSU's vice provost for extended learning, said the Acoma center will begin offering courses in the spring.

"We will start with business and education programs, but any of the distance education programs we currently offer can be made available there," she said. "We hope soon to be able to offer HRTM (hotel, restaurant and tourism management) by distance education, because that is a program the pueblo wants and needs."

Tortalita said the education center initially will be located in the business area of the pueblo's Sky City Casino on Interstate 40 west of Albuquerque. Pueblo officials have plans for a new multipurpose building that will house the education center in the future, he said.

NMSU's President Martin said the partnership with the Pueblo of Acoma fits well with the land-grant university's "tradition of being the people's university."

"It is also a chance to make New Mexico State a better university by learning in partnership with Acoma," Martin added. "This demonstrates how progressive the people of New Mexico are in finding new ways to meet our educational needs."

Gonzales said the Acoma partnership is among the initiatives resulting from a conference NMSU hosted last spring to explore ways of improving education opportunities for Native Americans. Distinguished leaders and scholars from American Indian communities across the state and region attended the conference titled "Digital Pathways: Best Practices in Distance Education for American Indians."

Another idea to emerge from the conference is a distance education program in tribal management, which is now in the proposal stages, Gonzales said. Funding and approvals are being sought for this program, which would be developed jointly with the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) to address the need for American Indian college graduates to fill tribal management positions. SIPI would develop the first two years of courses and NMSU would develop courses for the last two years of a bachelor's degree program.