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Students finishing what they started

Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

This item appeared in Beyond High School, a Chalkbeat newsletter by Jason Gonzales about college-going in Colorado. Sign up for your own copy here.


Welcome back.

In the course of reporting on a story, there are typically people I interview whose perspective never gets told. I’m always sad when I don’t have the space to include every person in my story. Their words, however, help me understand the broader impact of an issue.

That’s why I want to introduce you all to Kay Hernandez, who I interviewed as part of my recent story looking at the last decade of who gets a college degree. The series in partnership with the Colorado News Collaborative looks at inequities and progress among Black and Latino populations from 2010 to 2020.

Inequities show themselves in many ways. Almost 700,000 Colorado students left college without a degree or certificate. They aren’t able to access the economic benefits of a college degree and sometimes are saddled with high debt. Many are well into adulthood now, with complicated lives and obligations that pull them in many directions.

Hernandez, 36, demonstrates the impact not graduating can have.

Hernandez left high school early and got her high school-equivalency diploma. She wanted independence. She found it cutting hair.

But cutting hair also meant aching hands and knees. She didn’t have a retirement fund or healthcare. She didn’t have the freedom she’d hoped for.

Hernandez started at Pueblo Community College in 2014 with the thought she’d change her career. But she never figured out what she wanted to do. She held her dream close and enrolled again in fall 2019. She wanted to finish but when her children’s dad relapsed, she quit school again to take care of her family and work. She never thought she’d return, especially because her absence tanked her grades. That led to the federal government suspending her financial aid.

“I went back to cutting hair and just kind of gave up on college,” she said.

Hernandez couldn’t shake her dreams. She tried one more time. This time to better herself, because she found she didn’t always know how to relate to clients who were more educated than her. She also wanted to finish for her kids. She didn’t want her failed attempts to be the reason they didn’t further their own education.

Today, she’s back in school, earning good grades thanks to Pueblo Community College’s Return to Earn program. The program provides students financial assistance to finish their degree and coaching that helps them with on and off campus resources, such as tutoring or daycare. The initiative, started in 2016, is the blueprint for the statewide Finish What You Started program.

State leaders hope to help about 9,000 adults by 2026. Hernandez wants to be one of those students.

Hernandez, who is working on graduating with a general studies associate degree, said she’s going to school at the same time as her son. She hopes her journey will set the example.

Thank you for reading. Stay in touch.

Reach me on Twitter at @ByJasonGonzales or via email at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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