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MacDonald Hall is the oldest building on the Otero College campus and serves as its administrative building. Located in La Junta, the college serves about 1,400 students. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Natasha Gutierrez had covered a lot of rocky territory by the time she turned 23 and hit a personal low, addicted to heroin and meth and fed up with her life.

Five years later, Gutierrez now has gone 14 months without any drugs or alcohol and is determined to achieve a second semester with a perfect GPA where she is one year away from earning an associate’s degree in science.

“I knew that I wanted something different,” she said, “but my dilemma was, I want something different, but I’ve never seen it, so how do I know what I want if I’ve never seen it?”

Her vision for her future has become sharper since she returned to college about two years after completing a semester of classes at a community college in Illinois. She is back in school at Otero College with help from a state program framed around second chances. 

That program — known as Finish What You Started and offered at 30 Colorado public colleges and universities — came out of the pandemic and gives people who have completed some college credit the money and help they may need to cross the finish line of their degree or certificate. The program is backed by more than $46 million in federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act through June 2026 and is overseen by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, a state division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education that provides funding and support to students pursuing education after high school. 

Education leaders and program coordinators call it a critical part of motivating more students who dropped out of school or pushed pause on their classes to resume coursework at a time more than 600,000 people in Colorado have some college credit but need more to graduate.

Despite their best intentions, students who drop out of school usually don’t come back on their own, said Angie Paccione, executive director of CDHE.

“We knew we had to provide an incentive and some resources and a pathway for them to come back, with no stigma either,” Paccione said.

The pandemic dealt a blow to students who were already struggling financially, leading some to take a timeout from school to work and provide for their families while others hesitated to move forward with remote classes that would have robbed them of a full college experience.

“We wanted to entice them back … to say, you started this (and) it’s going to have great value for you,” Paccione said. “Let’s go ahead and help you finish it.”

At Otero College in La Junta, in southeast Colorado, 58 students signed on to complete their degree through the state program. Ten have graduated, nine students are set to graduate this spring and seven are on course to graduate this summer, according to Jane Wheeler, the success coordinator for the college’s program.

Jane Wheeler, left, advises nursing student Daniel Chapa during a meeting at Otero College. Chapa left Otero College in 2012 due to poor grades but re-entered the school in the spring of 2022 after seeing fliers posted around La Junta promoting the college’s Finish What You Started program. He made the Dean’s List for the fall 2022 term. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wheeler has watched as many students have veered away from higher education, often because of circumstances beyond their control. Some students struggled to make the leap from high school to the demands of college courses while others were pulled away by a job, a marriage, children or a move. And some simply foundered as they tried to adapt to online classes when COVID-19 hit, she said.

The scholarships available are enough to persuade some students to come back, especially when higher education costs often stand in their way and they want to start advancing in their career and earning more money, Wheeler said.

“We’ve had several students that came back just because it was going to mean an increase in their pay and perhaps even position,” Wheeler said. “So that financial (benefit) has been a driving force for students to return to college.”

Otero College students who pick up where they left off can receive varying levels of scholarships based on credit hours and financial need. For instance, a student pursuing 12-14 credit hours would net a $1,500 scholarship. That money can go toward tuition, books and living expenses. To be eligible for funding, students must have already completed some college credit, been out of school for at least two consecutive semesters and suffered economically during the pandemic.

Once back en route to their degree or certificate, students in the program are required to stay in school, maintain a GPA of at least 2.0 and plot their next steps through a career vision board and graduation timeline. Many of them also take advantage of peer mentoring, meet with a student “success coach” who helps them narrow down careers that interest them and tap into student support services — including tutoring, an organization that brings together nontraditional students on campus and mental health visits with a therapist. Students can receive extra scholarship money when they commit time and energy to some of those academic services, Wheeler said. 

Some students who qualify for the Finish What You Started program take a little more coaxing, especially when they feel their chance at finishing their education has passed them by, she noted. 

“It’s never too late to finish what they started,” Wheeler said, adding that students in their 50s and 60s have made their way back to campus.

That message has been one that Gutierrez — who is in recovery from a 13-year battle with addiction — has embraced.

“School is a huge thing for me because it gives me hope,” said Gutierrez, a 28-year-old single mother of two daughters, who currently stay with their grandmother in Pueblo. “I didn’t think that I’d be able to do anything, and then I’m exceeding my expectations of what I thought.”

MacDonald Hall is the oldest building on the Otero College campus and serves as its administrative building. Located in La Junta, the college serves about 1,400 students. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Getting a second shot at her education has brightened her prospects of a promising future after a lifetime of trauma, including sexual abuse by a family member, the loss of her father and stepfather — who both died by suicide — and a relapse with drugs close to three years ago.

“I’m going to be able to enjoy the future, not just experience it, but enjoy it and be present in it,” said Gutierrez, who lives at Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, a transitional housing initiative run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “And I feel really hopeful and excited and even empowered in some ways.”

Natasha Gutierrez, 28, is a year away from earning an associate’s degree in science at Otero College, where she has stepped back into the classroom after spending a semester at a community college in Illinois. Otero College’s Finish What You Started program, which offers students who have completed some college credit scholarships and academic resources, has eased her transition back to school as she aims to specialize in research physics. (Courtesy of Otero College)

Gutierrez’s days, which often start at 4:30 a.m., are crammed with classes, tutoring, workouts at the gym, studying, and time advancing through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous followed by religious devotionals and a FaceTime catch-up with her kids. 

A $2,000-per-semester scholarship through Finish What You Started helps her cover the cost of school supplies, food and clothes as well as afford a computer. As Gutierrez moves closer to the day she can cross a stage in a cap and gown, she has become a much more confident version of herself, someone who leans on the resources at her school and knows how to ask for help — things she shied away from in the past.

While mapping out her plan through the graduation timeline she received upon returning to classes, she aims to specialize in research physics, focusing on particle physics and quantum mechanics. Gutierrez will stay the course at Otero College for the next year, building a stronger foundation while continuing her recovery at Fort Lyon in Las Animas before potentially relocating to Pueblo to begin studying physics at Colorado State University Pueblo.

“I know that I’m able to accomplish my goals,” Gutierrez said. “I know that I have support systems, resources and the ability to accomplish my goals.”

Boosting students’ earnings and the state’s economy

Helping students like Gutierrez earn their remaining credits adds up to a communitywide transformation for Colorado’s southeastern pocket, where economic prosperity has lagged other parts of the state, Wheeler said.

“We want to have a homegrown, educated workforce because that’s going to boost the economy in this area, and it’s going to overall build a stronger community with greater resources,” she said.

The program also stands to reshape the state more broadly, equipping it with a more skilled workforce, said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System.

“It’s not about just helping the student,” Garcia said. “It’s about helping Colorado’s economy. We have too many jobs that are going unfilled because we don’t have trained people to fill them. If we can train them, we can get them in the workforce. Our employers are better off, the economy is better off and certainly our students are better off.”

Pueblo Community College’s Fremont campus is seen Jan. 20, 2023, in Cañon City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Garcia points to a program at Pueblo Community College that predates the pandemic and in many ways influenced the development of Finish What You Started, with effective financial and academic support.

That program, called Return to Earn, launched in 2016 as Richie Ince, the college’s downtown studio director, started calling students who were suddenly no longer enrolled to see why they had stopped.

He heard stories of students overtaken by life circumstances — pregnancies and cancer diagnoses, divorces and the death of a loved one, or rather “life happens moments,” as Ince calls them.

Many of those students were only a few classes away from graduating, and as Ince chatted with them over the phone, he repeatedly heard that students had been thinking about coming back but hadn’t yet taken the first step.

Pueblo Community College has succeeded in pulling students back into the classroom by helping them sort out funding for school, with Ince guiding students through the financial aid process, helping them submit their FAFSA and following up to get any additional information needed.

Since Return to Earn’s inception, 450 students have found their way back to Pueblo Community College to finish their schooling, with as many as 120 taking advantage of the program each semester. Students have walked away credentialed in a variety of fields, Ince said, including law enforcement, nursing, teaching, cosmetology, welding, computer information systems and others.

When the program started, students who completed their first semester with a C or better in all their classes received a $750 scholarship. Now the scholarship is $2,000 — doled out at the end of the semester — with an additional $500 awarded at the end of each additional semester. 

In the past seven years, more than 90% of students have passed with grades of C or better in their first semester back, Ince said.

Pueblo Community College still operates its Return to Earn program and received an infusion of new funding through the Finish What You Started program. While Finish What You Started is funded by federal COVID-19 relief funds facilitated by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, Return to Earn is funded by both the Pueblo Community College Foundation and matching funds from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative.

The Pueblo Community College’s Fremont campus in Cañon City is shown in this March 22, 2023 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To qualify for Return to Earn, students have to have been out of school for at least two consecutive semesters, not yet earned a degree and fall under a designated income level on their FAFSA, the federal student aid application.

To qualify for Finish What You Started, students have to either qualify for a Pell Grant, live in a certain geographic area or fall within the 300% poverty line. The program used to only require students to have been out of school for at least two consecutive semesters and have no degree, but criteria changed last year with new personal finance restrictions.

Now, students who earn too much to qualify for financial aid but who don’t make enough money to put themselves through school aren’t eligible for Finish What You Started funding. 

Some of those students are already back in classes, and COSI — a division of CDHE that facilitates the Finish What You Started program — is communicating to schools that the state will still move forward with granting funds to those students. Even if a student who previously qualified for help through Finish What You Started no longer qualifies, they will still get the funding they were initially promised, said Cynthia Armendariz, managing director of COSI. 

The change tied to personal finance requirements occurred in April 2022 due to a final federal rule that spells out eligibility. Students receiving funds through the program must have suffered a financial setback during the pandemic, whether they were laid off or furloughed, experienced a dip in earnings, saw job offers rescinded or struggled to find work because of the economic downturn, according to a statement provided by a CDHE spokesperson. Recipients of the federal funds that support the program must “demonstrate negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harms to workers, households, small businesses, impacted industries and the public sector,” according to the statement.

“We continue to explore ways that can be demonstrated and are looking at all ways to expand who is eligible” while following federal parameters, the statement noted, adding that CDHE has reached out to colleges and universities across the state to learn more about how the program has been implemented and to ask for “technical clarifications and additional documentation” so that the state can make sure to fulfill necessary reporting requirements for the federal recovery funds.

Armendariz said that her division learned about how changes were affecting schools earlier this spring, close to a year after the final federal rule was released. She said the lag was due to challenges with trying to understand what the final federal rule meant and how it would impact programs and schools.

“We are honoring our commitment to students and want to ensure there is no disruption in their path to completion,” Armendariz said.

Ince has seen support from the programs lead many students to a much more stable financial footing. A survey of former students that Ince conducted in 2019 comparing their income before and after graduating revealed that, of 63 respondents, 57 were employed, and each student’s annual income jumped by an average of 151%.

“Financially, they’re much better off than they were before they came back,” Ince said. “They’re providing for their families more.”

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Erica Breunlin

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