San Juan College helps struggling students

Joshua Kellogg
Center for Working Families Director Ceceilia Tso talks about her program Tuesday at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – San Juan College is putting the finishing touches on a new program designed to provide students with training in life skills and connect them with community resources to help them graduate.

The tentatively titled Center for Working Families program was established this semester as part of a series of grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to help low-income students stay in school and earn their degree or certificate by providing them with college and community resources .

The college has received about $750,000 in grants to develop the program and fund operations for three years. Students will receive help locating organizations in the community that will address their issues, including housing, transportation, and providing food and day care. The center also will organize workshops to teach financial literacy and life skills, Director Ceceilia Tso said.

Tso said people struggling with poverty easily can become overwhelmed and get stuck. She hopes the new program can help students gain confidence by providing support throughout their college career.

San Juan College student Chrishana Johnson, left, and Center for Working Families Director Cecelia Tso talk about the program's goals Tuesday at the college in Farmington.

“This is about empowering students,” Tso said. “It’s not just about providing resources but really empowering the students to be successful students. That’s what we want.”

Student Chrishana Johnson said the college currently doesn’t have services like those the program will offer and has talked to students about how the center can help them.

Johnson has been volunteering with Tso at the center, learning the course materials to help run one of the 10-week workshops next year.

“There are students I have personally referred over here,” Johnson said. “I just told them to talk to (Tso) about whatever they are going through.”

Part of the program calls for the staff to be in continual contact with students and the community organizations that have formed an advisory committee to help the program.

Sara Kaynor, executive director of the Echo Food Bank, said nonprofit organizations, including her own, are a key component of the program and will help students overcome the barriers that keep them from staying in school and finishing their degree. The food bank will establish a food pantry in the program’s office on campus.

Kaynor said San Juan County remains in a recession, and the vast majority of SJC students are under-employed and struggle to pay their bills.

“They don’t have the money for rent, food and child care,“ Kaynor said.

Case management software will be purchased that will allow the nonprofit organizations to manage student cases with the college to ensure students are receiving help.

The center also will work to bring students, and staff and faculty members together to discuss topics at a monthly meeting. Tso said the center already has hosted an event between those three groups to discuss the “hidden rules” of San Juan College. Service Learning Student Ambassador Shannon Teseny said the workshop addressed how students talk to faculty members and also featured experienced students sharing their advice with new students about how the campus works.

Service Learning Student Ambassador Shannon Teseny talks about a recent workshop presented by the Center for Working Families Thursday at San Juan College in Farmington.

“It was about helping the newer students come in and navigate the campus without feeling isolated and feeling like they can’t get help,” Teseny said.

The meeting also provided a chance to students to get to know staff members and other students they had not met, Teseny said.

The center will have a grand opening next semester, and Tso said she plans to organize workshops two times a week. One 10-week workshop called Strengthening Families will include lessons in budgeting for student loans and other financial education.

The center is still hiring personnel, including a receptionist and a staff member whose primary role will be to work one on one with students.

A spare desk in the office will be used to rotate representatives from area organizations like ECHO and People Assisting the Homeless who can answer questions about the services their group provides.

Tso said the center will conduct an online poll of members of the college community to select a permanent name.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.