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Toni Hopper Pendergrass will begin 3-year term in July

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FARMINGTON — Community colleges may not get as much attention or draw as much esteem as comprehensive, four-year universities. But they do much of the work when it comes to providing affordable, accessible alternatives to students eager to continue climbing the educational ladder.

Dr. Toni Hopper Pendergrass, the president of San Juan College, has spent virtually her entire professional career in the community college field, and she said she understands very well the role institutions like hers play. She'll have a chance to explore that role even further next month when she begins a three-year term on the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Pendergrass was elected to the 32-member board as an affiliated council member. She said the organization's mission is to serve as a voice for and advance the initiatives of its approximately 1,200 member institutions, which cover some 12 million students — half of all college undergraduates in America.

Pendergrass said she was surprised and flattered to be nominated for the spot on the board by the National Association of Women in Community Colleges. She was elected to the position in February.

The board typically meets three to four times a year at locations around the country. Pendergrass said she wasn't sure how those meetings would be conducted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said as of now, the plan still calls for in-person meetings rather than virtual meetings.

She said the education issues caused by the virus are a focal point for the association.

"They're taking a strong role (in how higher education institutions are adapting to pandemic). They're really working to effect policy documents at the national level," she said, citing the work the association has done with government agencies on the stimulus fund.

Pendergrass said the association is involved in other national issues, as well, including perhaps the discussion over making higher education free in America — an idea that has gained traction this year after being promoted by a number of Democratic presidential candidates. She said that idea is a priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through the establishment of the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides tuition and fee assistance for students enrolled in two-year programs.

Pendergrass sees initiatives like that playing a critical role in the mission of providing higher education access to students across the state. She said San Juan College already has made a strong commitment to that idea through its involvement in the Pathways 2.0 program, an AACC initiative through which select member colleges perform transformational work designed to enhance the college completion rate of students and assure equity in student outcomes.

Pendergrass boiled the goal of those initiatives down to a few words: "We need to make sure they not only graduate, but that they have a high-demand, high-wage career."

AACC President and CEO Walter G. Bumphus welcomed Pendergrass to the board in a statement included in a press release from San Juan College.

"Dr. Pendergrass is highly respected by her peers around the country, as evidenced by her election to a coveted position on the AACC board," he stated. "I am confident that Dr. Pendergrass will represent and advocate for community colleges effectively on the national level. The AACC staff, current board members and I look forward to welcoming her to the board of directors."

Pendergrass became the San Juan College president in 2012 after spending much of her career in Texas. She has worked in community college administration since 1995.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

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