Over 1,300 graduate from Colorado Mountain College
Students break through challenges to earn degrees and certificates
On May 6 and 7, 2022, Colorado Mountain College students gathered at campuses and locations throughout the college’s 12,000-square-mile district to collect hard-earned degrees, certificates and diplomas.
"This year we have more than 1,360 graduates, across all 11 CMC campuses,” said Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, CMC president and CEO. “This fact should offer all of us hope and encouragement, because every one of these graduates has an enormous opportunity – and now the skills and education – to shape the future of our beloved mountain communities."
Graduates persevered through a global pandemic to gain the knowledge they need to become the state’s next nurses, sustainability innovators, EMTs, teachers, firefighters, outdoor industry experts, law enforcement officers, business leaders and many other in-demand professions. Over 80% of CMC’s students are from the college’s 10-county district.
CMC Breckenridge and Dillon
The CMC Breckenridge and Dillon campus alone graduated over 200 students since last summer. Summit County students graduated from over 30 academic programs; some of the more popular were business, sustainability studies, education, nursing, emergency medical technician and law enforcement.
At the May 6 ceremony, U.S. Rep Joe Neguse of Colorado’s 2nd District addressed the crowd of students, family and friends who gathered at Breckenridge’s Riverwalk Center. He was joined by two soon-to-be graduates, Melinda James and Itzel Delgado Lara, who shared speaking duties throughout the ceremony.
For James, CMC was the college she chose to earn a degree, as well as her workplace. She earned her Bachelor of Science in business administration with a management minor while working at the Breckenridge campus as a senior enrollment services specialist, a job she is continuing after graduation.
“The amazing staff worked with me at the beginning to understand what the class load and workload would look like each year and helped me apply for scholarships,” James said. “Without their support and guidance, I might have become overwhelmed in the first semester.”
Sandra Puc is another CMC Breckenridge student who earned a business degree. Puc earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration with an emphasis in accounting. At commencement, she received an award from the Colorado Society of Certified Public Accountants for her high grade point average.
Puc has a history with CMC Breckenridge. After originally earning an associate degree, she considered transferring, though stayed at the Breckenridge campus using her strong math skills to eventually add the accounting emphasis to her degree. Now with an overall 3.88 and straight As in her upper division coursework, she is eligible to sit for her certified public accountant exam after graduation.
“I am super proud of her for her perseverance,” said Kristina Brooks-Olk, CMC associate professor of accounting, who presented the award to Puc at commencement.
The ceremony also provided a time to say goodbye to long-time faculty members. Professors Bill Painter, Joyce Mosher, Sharon Aguiar and Margaret Gilmon are retiring this May after years with the Breckenridge and Dillon campus.
After ski area operations students and faculty did their traditional cap-and-gown ski-down Dutch Henry Hill earlier in the day, a crowd gathered for CMC Leadville’s commencement ceremony.
Mackenzie Dotson, who earned an associate degree in outdoor recreation leadership, delivered the student speech. Before enrolling at CMC, Dotson had been teaching whitewater kayaking and wondered how she could continue working in the outdoors long-term. When she learned about CMC she enrolled "kind of on a whim,” she said.
A whim no longer, after graduation, Dotson plans to enroll in the sustainability studies program at CMC Steamboat Springs.
In the two years Autry Lomahongva has spent away from his home in Northern Arizona’s Four Corners region to attend the Leadville campus and run with CMC’s cross country team, he’s made enough of an impact to be named top associate degree student.
“Autry is a risk taker,” said Darren Brungardt, CMC Leadville associate professor and head coach of the running team. “Leaving his beautiful home in the desert behind for the snowy peaks of Leadville was incredibly brave of him. His bravery was evident in the classroom, during workouts, while he was in the field during an outdoor class, and even in a race. In just four short semesters, he changed my life and the lives of many others. I am so incredibly proud of what he has accomplished at CMC. I will never forget his work ethic and drive to make himself better.”
“I am learning all that I can from the instructors so I can go back to where I come from and help the native youth get out and learn of their surroundings,” Lomahongva said late last year. “I will try to instill a sustainability method so that I, them and the next generations that will follow can still enjoy the outdoors experience.”
Kimberly Jackson has also excelled at CMC Leadville. Twelve years ago, Jackson earned an associate degree from CMC in natural resource management. Eight years later a mentor encouraged her to get a bachelor’s degree. At Leadville’s commencement, she not only received her Bachelor of Science in leadership management, she was awarded top bachelor’s degree student.
“It’s just incredible that we have this opportunity here in our small community,” said Jackson of CMC. “I don’t think people realize the resource we have here.”
CMC Vail Valley at Edwards
CMC Vail Valley soon-to-be graduates gathered at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek on the afternoon of May 6. Out of the over 300 students graduating with degrees and certificates, over 100 were high school concurrent enrollment students.
The reasons for pursuing higher education are as different as the range of students. Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek earned a bachelor’s degree in leadership and management and said how appreciative he is of the Edwards campus’s office staff, counselors and the quality and experience of the faculty.
Friday, May 6 was a busy day for the sheriff. As the vice president of the board of the Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial, van Beek was in Golden attending an annual memorial service, which honors all Colorado law enforcement officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2021. He headed back after the service to attend CMC’s commencement.
Van Beek’s plans post-graduation are somewhat different than what one would expect from a graduating college senior. “I’d like to be able to say I'm taking a few months off to backpack in some exotic location,” he said. “However, the reality is that aside from applying the skills and knowledge I have to my current position, I am focusing the next several months on work and my re-election.”
And there’s another milestone that awaits. “I’m taking some time to officiate my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding in June, and hopefully, be with them in September for the birth of my first grandchild and becoming an Opa,” he said.
“I couldn't have made it to this point without all the support and encouragement from friends, family, and my classmates, as well as my office staff,” Van Beek said. “Thirty-nine years after graduating from high school, it’s a very long road – proving if you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
Diana Loera has earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with two endorsements: culturally and linguistically diverse education (and bilingual education specialist).
“CMC has been an incredible support during my pathway obtaining my degree,” she said. “CMC provided me with the academic, emotional and financial help I needed to achieve my dream of becoming a bilingual and multicultural educator.”
Loera has already been hired for a teaching position at Edwards Elementary school for the coming 2022-23 school year.
“I'm excited to start my teaching career here in Eagle County where I plan to shape the minds of my future students,” she said.
Julissa Olivares is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in business administration from the Edwards campus. She said that earning her degree from Colorado Mountain College, and the support she received from TRIO, a federally funded program that motivates and supports first-generation students, helped her reach her educational goals.
She said her trip to the state capitol with her fellow TRIO students from CMC and throughout Colorado was a memorable experience. “Hearing about their struggles and successes through college and the TRIO program gave me hope at a time where I needed it the most,” she said.
Olivares plans to become a financial advisor and volunteer in her local community to help spread and share financial literacy.
Ray Kyle was living in the Vail Valley and taking in-person classes at CMC Vail Valley before the pandemic hit. Even though the sudden turn of events caused him to move to the Front Range, he kept going to school – all online. He graduated with an Associate of Arts in business, and he’s not stopping. He plans to earn a bachelor’s degree from CMC from his home in Parker.
“CMC helped me reach my goal of earning my associate degree by having a full catalog of classes that are offered online and at a great price,” Kyle said. ‘All the classes were taught by professors who wanted you to succeed and were there for you if you needed help.”
Any special memories?
“Passing calculus with an A was special for me because I had always told myself that I was terrible at math and was worried about passing the class,” he said.
Kyle is now taking his first class on his path towards his bachelor’s in business administration at CMC – again, all online. And although he wasn’t at commencement on Friday, he said he’ll be there when he graduates with his bachelor’s.
CMC Spring Valley at Glenwood Springs
CMC’s Spring Valley hosted four commencement ceremonies over the course of two days. On Friday, graduates from Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy held an afternoon graduation ceremony, and Saturday morning began with a pinning ceremony, the traditional graduation for nurses.
And, with the campus awash in caps and gowns, two more commencements were held for those earning degrees and certificates, accounting for a total of 345 graduates from Aspen to Glenwood Springs since last summer.
Commencement ceremonies aren’t usually a time for surprises, though several Spring Valley campus graduates were called on stage to accept closely guarded awards.
During Saturday’s 11 a.m. ceremony Kallan Brumfield earned her Associate of Arts in graphic design and digital media from CMC’s Isaacson School for Communication, Arts and Media. She also learned that she had won the campus’s outstanding student award.
“Kallan has been dedicated to her degree and studies before and during the pandemic,” said Erin Beaver, a professor of English. “She has taken a leadership role with the creative writing club, fostering connection among her peers through writing. Kallan will do great things beyond CMC.”
Two other students also received unforeseen praise from the college. During the 1 p.m. commencement ceremony, Basalt resident Adriana “Adree” Cabrera Topete learned she was selected as Spring Valley’s outstanding associate degree student. Graduating with a 3.9 grade point average, she earned an Associate of Arts degree in early childhood education. Cabrera’s educational journey at CMC began in 1999 with ESL classes, and she now works at an Aspen School District preschool.
“Adree is an inspirational role model to teachers and fellow students alike,” said Professor Barbara Jackman, CMC program chair of early childhood education programs. “Seeing her get this award makes me so proud of both her and CMC that her hard work, persistence and positivity are seen and rewarded.”
Rachael Jones received the outstanding bachelor’s degree student award in addition to her Bachelor of Arts in sustainability studies.
Dr. Kevin Hillmer-Pegram, sustainability studies professor at Spring Valley, explained why Jones received the outstanding bachelor’s degree student award.
“Rachael is flat out the most talented and driven sustainability scientist in the graduating class,” he said of the New Castle graduate. “Basically, on her own, she secured prestigious internships and ongoing employment with local and national partners. With her at the helm, society might make it after all!”
Over 30 students have graduated from CMC Salida since last summer. A smaller number gathered to receive their certificates and degrees in person on May 7. One of those was Kaitlynn Garcia.
In 2020 Garcia walked into the office of Amy Dennis, assistant dean of student affairs at CMC Salida. Garcia hadn’t finished high school, partly due to health complications, and she was ready to earn her general equivalency diploma, or GED. Dennis helped Garcia enroll in prep classes, and Garcia never looked back.
Not only did Garcia earn her GED, she went on to earn an associate degree in general studies from the Salida campus, where she was selected as the student speaker for her graduating class. After thanking her instructors and family, she urged her fellow graduates, “Hold on to your dreams and aspirations because you never know when the opportunity will present itself to create the life that you want.”
Following her own advice, Garcia completed a year and a half of medical assistant coursework while earning her degree at CMC, which helped her pass the exams to become a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant this April.
Garcia credits the strong faculty and staff at the Salida campus with reigniting her love of learning. During her second semester, she took two particularly transformative classes with Dr. Simon Waldbaum, CMC associate professor of biology. “I’ve always loved science,” Garcia said, “and he just made it incredible.”
Garcia has achieved a lot in two years, but she’s not done yet. “I’m planning to work toward earning a BSN through CMC,” she said. “I’d like to be a nurse practitioner in endocrinology, and CMC will definitely help me get there.”
May 7 was a busy day at the Rifle campus, starting with a main ceremony for graduates earning degrees and certificates, followed in quick succession with individual ceremonies for over 75 concurrent enrollment high school students and another for those earning High School Equivalency and workforce diplomas. An afternoon ceremony was held for fire science graduates.
Sarahi Carrillo, a first-generation college student who graduated with an Associate of Applied Science degree in accounting bookkeeper, was the student speaker. Keynote speaker was Rio Blanco County rancher Deirdre Macnab.
Two sets of siblings walked in the processional to receive their degrees. Nancy Espinosa and Jonathan Espinoza – Nancy’s last name was misspelled on her birth certificate – are from Silt. Both received bachelor’s degrees in business administration. Espinoza graduated last summer and his sister graduated this spring.
“I graduated a little before her so I always rub it in,” he said, kidding in a brotherly way.
The brother and sister both praised CMC Rifle’s staff and faculty.
“CMC offered a lot of tutoring programs and educational seminars that helped me reach my goal of graduating,” Espinosa said. “The staff and faculty were quick to help when I was struggling.”
“The teachers are all brilliant educators that made learning fun,” added Espinoza.
“My brother and I both found our calling in business and got to support one another.” Espinosa said of attending college together. “And of course, this wouldn't have of been possible without the help of our family.”
Sisters Katie and Lainey Rhinaman from Parachute didn’t plan on earning associate degrees together. “It just happened that way,” Katie said.
“CMC provided me with a very flexible schedule and many classes I can apply to my everyday life,” Lainey said, who volunteers with the CSU extension office, while Katie is a long-time substitute at Garfield No. 16 school district.
With graduation behind them, each sister has a new goal. Katie, who earned an Associate of Arts in elementary education, is planning to finish her bachelor’s degree at CMC, while Lainey will be transferring to the University of Montana to pursue a degree in wildlife biology.
“I worked with my advisors who helped me significantly with planning my transfer,” Lainey said.
CMC Steamboat Springs
With over 140 students graduating from CMC Steamboat Springs, keynote speaker Kathryn Redhorse (Lakota/Navajo), executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, addressed the audience gathered for the commencement ceremony on May 7 at the Steamboat Grand Hotel, greeted by soon-to-be graduates wearing colorful heritage and leadership stoles, to signify diversified races, ethnicities and sexual identities.
Student speakers shared the stage with Redhorse. Brittany Ahlgrim, who earned her Bachelor of Science in nursing at the Steamboat campus, participated in CMC Steamboat Springs’s nurse pinning graduation ceremony on May 6 and was the bachelor’s degree student speaker at the Steamboat campus’s main ceremony on May 7.
Ahlgrim is from Manitou Springs and graduated from high school in 2001. Before earning her Bachelor of Science in nursing at Colorado Mountain College, she obtained a Bachelor of Science in health and exercise science with a sports medicine concentration at Colorado State University and earned an associate degree in nursing from Front Range Community College in 2009.
As a registered nurse with Northwest Colorado Health, Ahlgrim has worked as a home health and hospice nurse since 2010 where she is currently the director of home services.
Adam Wulf, selected as the associate degree commencement speaker, also took his own unique path to graduation. After graduating from high school in 2014 in Parker, Wulf took time away from academics, going on road trips around the western half of the country and working odd jobs to fund his travels.
Five years later, Wulf found himself looking for more, and applied to the Steamboat campus. At CMC, Wulf was a member of Phi Theta Kappa academic honor society and was elected as the student body president.
When not studying, Adam spent his time backpacking, snowboarding, learning to ski and working at the Routt County Humane Society. After graduation, Wulf plans to continue his journey in higher education while continuing to work with animals.
Nurse pinning graduation ceremonies
An April report in The Denver Post projected a shortage of 10,000 nurses in Colorado by 2026. Graduates from the nursing program at Colorado Mountain College are stepping up to become part of the solution.
Collegewide, 50 students earned an Associate of Applied Science in Nursing, while 21 students earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Commencement and pinning ceremonies for nursing students at the Breckenridge, Spring Valley and Steamboat Springs campuses were held May 6 and 7.
As part of their commencement exercises, CMC hosted pinning ceremonies for graduating nurses. This time-honored practice invites graduating students to select a special person to present their nursing pins and share in their achievements.
For Noemi Bacia Garcia, a Spring Valley associate nursing graduate, that person was her 5-year-old daughter. “My daughter represents everyone, my side of the family and my husband’s,” she said.
Spring Valley associate degree graduate Katie Stark decided to reach out to a previous generation instead. She asked her mom, who is also a nurse, to do the honors. “It’s really special,” Stark said.
Outstanding student awards at Breckenridge went to Travis Samila (AAS) and Tanya Wait (BSN), while the Spring Valley cohort elected to honor every nursing graduate who earned a degree with the outstanding student title.
“Colorado had a nursing shortage before the pandemic, and that stress has been really hard,” said Whitney Erickson, director and chief nursing officer for CMC’s nursing program. “We are a pipeline for new nurses in local facilities, which is why we have such great partnerships,” she said.
“I was impressed with the way the college got us through clinicals during a pandemic,” said new graduate Ryan Bunker, who earned his associate degree in nursing from CMC Breckenridge. “We started clinicals early because CMC anticipated a spike in COVID cases,” he said.
During his clinical rotation at Denver Health, Bunker assisted with several births, including one with significant complications. He also completed a rotation with a cardiac ICU in Lakewood, where he has been hired for a post-graduation position. “It really is my dream job,” he said.
Eva Reyes Castillo’s mother has also played a role in her daughter becoming a nurse.
“She went to college and was a nurse in Mexico,” said Reyes, who graduated with an associate degree in nursing with her Spring Valley classmates.
Now Reyes’s children are developing an interest in health care.
“My daughter says, ‘I want to grow up to be a nurse like you, Mommy,” Reyes said of her 6-year-old daughter, “but I think my (4-year-old) son will probably go into health care. He gets up early with me and watches my lesson videos.”
Reyes graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 2010 and completed an associate degree in Spanish from CMC last August. Her goal is to work in community health care.
“I love doing health care in Spanish,” she said. “I have a five year and a 10-year plan to go back to school, get my bachelor’s degree and then study to become a nurse practitioner.”
Reyes also wants to become state certified to become a sexual abuse nurse examiner. “The Roaring Fork Valley doesn’t have a Spanish-speaking examiner,” she said.
Reyes won’t have to wait to work in health care. Aspen Valley Hospital has hired Reyes to start working right after graduation.
“Facilities really do like the quality of our graduates,” said Erickson. “We’re just trying to do our part.”
Aspen-related graduation connections
Spring Valley’s commencements included students with Aspen connections that included Ethan Oster of the Aspen Police Department, who received a certificate the Colorado Law Enforcement Academy.
Graduate Eva Reyes Castillo earned an associate degree in nursing at the ceremony at Spring Valley and won’t have to wait to work in health care. Aspen Valley Hospital has hired Reyes to start working right after graduation.
April Davey grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and attended Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs. When she enrolled at Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley, she also joined the staff at the Aspen campus. Davey is executive administrative assistant to Steve Skadron, former Aspen mayor and CMC Aspen campus dean.
Davey’s professor, Dr. Kevin Hillmer-Pegram, has high praise for Davey. “April’s capstone project broke new ground by addressing challenging questions about integrating marginalized voices into official local government planning processes in the Roaring Fork Valley, to advance climate justice. April is rigorous, tenacious, creative and hopeful in her academic work – all crucial skills for transforming society for the better.”
CMC Aspen graduate Lindsey Lupow received an Associate of Arts degree.
“I’m a single mom with a 16-year-old daughter and had been in finance for 18 years,” she said. “I wanted a change and CMC was amazing.”
Lupow, who works with Aspen Strong, a mental health advocacy nonprofit organization, impressed her professors, such as Dr. Linda Crockett, who teaches psychology at CMC.
“Lindsey uses her knowledge of psychology to support others,” Crockett said. “She is tireless in her dedication to her craft of learning and giving back to the community. In this, she has distinguished herself as an advocate for mental health and raising the level of knowledge and support throughout the Roaring Fork region.”
Along with financial aid from a scholarship, Lupow, who is the first person in her family to graduate from college, credited Professor Tom Buesch of the Aspen campus with pushing her to get her degree. “He gets you to think about life,” she said.
Lupow plans to continue to work full-time and take the summer to decide where to pursue a nutritional neuroscience education. She hopes to eventually become a dietitian.