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Success Stories

Accelerate Student Launches Career in Space Research

Accelerate Student Launches Career in Space Research

Return to College Results in Internships at Fermilab, Cornell University, YXO Inc. and LANL

Pojoaque, New Mexico, native Sheri Lopez remembers being fascinated by space and the stars for as long as she can remember. But she wasn’t encouraged to follow her interest in science when growing up. After originally attempting to follow a path others had chosen for her, now she is following her dreams and plans to design devices that explore the universe.

In 2015, Sheri will participate in a summer internship at Cornell University, earn her Associate’s Degree in Pre-Engineering, and transfer to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT). The first in her family to earn a college degree, Sheri is on the verge of launching a career that will build a better life for herself and her 3-year old son.

Growing up, Sheri remembers being told that she should be an English teacher by one of her math instructors. “In the community where I grew up, women were encouraged to become teachers, not scientists,” she says.

Following high school, she briefly enrolled in Eastern New Mexico University before dropping out and moving to California, where she worked in retail for several years. When the recession hit and most of her work hours disappeared, she moved back to Pojoaque. After much inward reflection, Sheri decided to enroll in the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA). It was here that she figured out that she actually liked math and decided to pursue her interest in science.

Sheri joined the Accelerate program based on the stipend payments that could be earned for attending career readiness events and participating in internships while attending UNM-LA. However, she soon realized that the advice, support and encouragement provided by Grace Willerton, the Accelerate program Career Technical Advisor, were more important than the money. According to Sheri, “Grace found opportunities and encouraged me to apply for them.“

Sheri took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. She applied for and received a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Foundation Scholarship. Then, in 2014, she applied for a summer internship at Fermilab in Illinois and was one of only eight students to receive this prestigious opportunity, where she helped build a code library for the MINERvA neutrino beam.

In the fall of 2014, Sheri carried a load of 21 credit hours and also worked on two separate internships. Thanks to her growing confidence and intrepid networking skills, Sheri called LANL employees to find a mentor who would support her for a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) and she also contacted the CEO of YXO Inc. to ask about interning there. YXO Inc., the manufacturer of lighter, safer, and stronger carbon fiber structures that are used in aerospace, enlisted Sheri to work on a muon tracker production project. Because she was carrying such a heavy academic load at the time, her YXO supervisor allowed her to work eight hours each Sunday for the duration of the 100-hour internship paid for by Accelerate.

Even before earning her Associate’s degree, Sheri has been offered the work of her dreams. Next fall, she will transfer to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to pursue a four-year degree in Mechanical Engineering with a dual minor in Aerospace and Physics. While there, she will participate in the undergraduate internship program at LANL, working with the Space and Science Application Group.

Sheri credits the Accelerate program and UNM-LA with helping her to open doors and to expand her universe. The sky is truly the limit for this rising star!

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Student Processes Career in Database Administration

Derek Salazar grew up in Espanola, New Mexico, attended Los Alamos High School, and enrolled in the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos soon after graduation. He was interested in pursuing an Information Technology with Cybersecurity degree, but thanks to his decision to join the Accelerate program and two internships at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), he found himself pursuing computer engineering – a 4-year degree that he had never previously considered.

Accelerate is a pilot program of the Regional Development Corporation in collaboration with six northern New Mexico colleges, including the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA). Funded by a five year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy/Office of Environmental Management, the program aims to increase retention, career readiness, and certificate and 2-year technical degree completion of non-traditional students in northern New Mexico. More than 500 students have been served by Accelerate to date.

Throughout the academic year, the Accelerate program’s Career Technical Advisors (CTA) serve as coaches, advisors, and mentors to help students navigate through any issue that might affect their school work. They also help students find internship opportunities and facilitate career readiness training to prepare students for the workforce.

As soon as he enrolled at UNM-Los Alamos, Grace Willerton, the Accelerate program’s CTA on campus, began sending him email messages encouraging him to join the Accelerate program. The stipends students earn for their participation in career readiness training and internships with local employers got his attention.

In 2014, Grace helped Derek apply for a National Science Foundation summer internship opportunity with the Software and Application Engineering Division at LANL. When his internship supervisor left for a scheduled vacation during the final weeks of the internship, she asked Steve Torres, another team member in the same department, to look in on him.   Steve took Derek under his wing and worked with him for several weeks introducing him to SQL Server database administration. Even though Derek had little previous background in the field, Steve noted that he was inquisitive and caught on quickly. Derek learned a lot, and because of the internship he changed his major to Computer Engineering.

Derek and Steve stayed in touch, and in the fall of 2014 when Derek found out that the Accelerate program would pay him to intern with the company of his choice, Derek contacted Steve and asked if he could continue to work with him. The answer was yes, and this time around Steve added some more advanced assignments to Derek’s duties. Steve says, “I gave Derek the opportunity to directly interact with our customers, and he is very good at it. I also tried to introduce him to other people at the labs who could help to shape his future.”

After the Accelerate internship was completed, Steve agreed to continue mentoring Derek through the LANL undergraduate program. Now Derek has a work plan in place until December of 2015. In addition to his work on SQL server databases, the plan includes work on Oracle database administration.

Both student and mentor have gotten a lot out of the working relationship. According to Derek, “Joining the Accelerate program was my way into the Lab. I couldn’t be more thankful to Grace and Steve for their support and mentoring.” Steve, who has never supervised a student intern before, finds that his role as mentor adds a fulfilling new dimension to his day. “I want to help Derek to open as many doors as possible. I come home from work and I feel good,” he says.

Thanks to Accelerate and LANL, Derek has been given a great opportunity and now it’s up to him to take advantage of it. Both Grace and Steve have no doubt that he will.

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Success Stories

Rita Bronson, the “Cookie Mom”

Cookie Mom’s Handling of Dough Bakes Up a Sweet New Career

Rita Bronson earned a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science in 1994, but never worked in her field of study because she got married and started a family soon after graduating. Her husband was in a training program with the U.S. Department of Energy and the family moved quite often. After the training program, he worked at the Nevada Test Site and Rita’s family lived in Las Vegas for six years before transferring to Los Alamos 11 years ago.

When the youngest of her three children started kindergarten, Rita decided to go back to college at the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA). She thought she wanted to pursue nursing and started by taking a physiology class. But when she quickly realized that she wasn’t cut out to be around sick people all the time, Rita talked with Dr. Cindy Rooney, Dean of Instruction at UNM-LA. Cindy learned about the discipline, bookkeeping, and organizational skills Rita enjoyed putting into practice as a successful Girl Scout “Cookie Mom”, and suggested she look into financial accounting. Rita had received and distributed 20,000 boxes of cookies valued at $75,000.00 by Los Alamos County troops each year.

While at the Los Alamos County Fair with her kids, Rita ran into Grace Willerton, the Accelerate program’s Career Technical Advisor. Soon afterwards Grace sent her an email inviting her to apply to the Accelerate program while attending UNM-LA. According to Rita, the invitation changed her life.

Accelerate is a pilot program of the Regional Development Corporation in collaboration with six northern New Mexico colleges, including the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA). Funded by a five year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy/Office of Environmental Management, the program aims to increase retention, career readiness, and certificate and 2-year technical degree completion of non-traditional students in northern New Mexico. More than 500 students have been served by Accelerate to date.

Throughout the academic year, the Accelerate program’s Career Technical Advisors serve as coaches, advisors, and mentors to help students navigate through any issue that might affect their school work. They also help students find internship opportunities and facilitate career readiness training to prepare students for the workforce.

Needing experience in her new field of study, Rita took the Accelerate program’s career readiness class and also applied for one of the sought-after paid internships with local employers. She didn’t know who in town would be willing to work with her, but once again Grace came to the rescue. Grace knew Beth Breshears of Hartway & Breshears, CPAs, LLC, and asked if she would be interested in working with a student intern. Beth wasn’t quite sure if this would work out. The firm had never agreed to work with student interns before due to concerns about the security of their client’s information. But after receiving Rita’s resume in November of 2014, Beth and co-owner Lorraine Hartway agreed to interview her. Rita had just finished crafting a professional resume and a personal “elevator pitch” in the career readiness class and was thrilled when she used both to land the internship opportunity in January 2015.

Lorraine Hartway says she could tell at that point that Rita might be a good fit for the company, saying “Even though she had little tax background, if someone is smart and interested, you can teach them anything. Finding a person that fits in with the company culture is really important ”. Lorraine recalls that when she graduated from college and went to her first interview with an accounting firm in Santa Fe, she had absolutely no idea what an accountant really did. She now realizes that if she had been given a similar internship opportunity, she would have been better prepared.

Near the end of the 100-hour internship, the firm offered Rita a permanent position with the company. Rita began her new position just before tax season – the busiest time of the year for any CPA firm. According to Rita, “This time of the year employees work 6 days a week, but I don’t mind. The company understands that family life is very important and they work with us on a schedule that fits with our other responsibilities. I love my new position, my fellow employees, and my supervisors. Everyone is hardworking, supportive, and responsible and we are treated with respect and as adults.”

Rita is on target to graduate in May with her Associate of Applied Science in Accounting. Beth and Lorraine have recommended that Rita continue her education to the intermediate accounting level. The basic ingredients Rita possessed as a Girl Scout Cookie Mom have been added to, baked, and removed from the oven as a whole new career.

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Success Stories

Gerard Martinez Finds Second Career

Accelerate Helps Student Initiate Second Career

Gerard Martinez had been on and off unemployment and without full-time work for over three years when he heard about the Accelerate program.  That introduction came at a group meeting of age 50+ displaced workers sponsored by the Workforce Investment Act and the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

Martinez had been thinking about going back to college to pursue a new career, but feared he wouldn’t be able to complete the math requirements.  When he heard that the Accelerate program offered a “Math Boot Camp” to help students get through remedial math courses, he enrolled in Santa Fe Community College and simultaneously joined the Accelerate program.

The Technical Training and Job Placement program, known as Accelerate, focuses on transitional workers with retraining needs and non-traditional students enrolled in technical certificate and 2-year degree programs.  Accelerate offers an innovative approach to increase technical degree completion, professional readiness, and job placement.

Like many of the students in the Accelerate program, Martinez already had career, but was laid off and had a difficult time finding full-time work in his field of expertise.  In the fall of 2011, Martinez made the decision to go back to school and pursue opportunities in a field more relevant to today’s job market.

Today, Martinez continues in the Accelerate program while pursuing his Associates in Applied Science in Sustainable Technologies.  He has already obtained certificates in OHSA 10, Biodiesel Production, Biomass/Biogas Production, Solar Heating – and he’s made the Dean’s List.

Martinez says his favorite parts of the program are working one on one with an Accelerate Career Technical Advisor (CTA) and the Internship program.  CTAs pro-actively touch base with students to make sure they are progressing and to help them with problem solving on issues that could impact school work.

Martinez says his wife and family have been his greatest support and inspiration for his studies and new career path.  He also credits his CTA with providing him with up to date information on resumes and cover letters and an understanding of the value of networking.  According to Martinez, “My CTA taught me a lot about interviewing and gave me the up to date knowledge on professional readiness skills that I lacked.  Today I feel much more confident about pursuing work in a new field”.

In the winter of 2012, Martinez was awarded an internship through Accelerate with the Solar Department at Santa Fe Community College.   He is working with the NM Solar Energy Association to put on a solar fair that would feature potential employers in the area.

“I would absolutely recommend that students take advantage of an internship opportunity,” he says.  “Internships help you stay involved in your field and the experience you gain looks good on your resume.  Even though I was successful in the past and had excellent references, that experience is no longer relevant and the work I did during my internship provided references in my new field of study.  It also gave me the opportunity to meet leaders I can count on to support my career goals”.

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Success Stories

Accelerate Helps Couple Return To College

Couple Credits Accelerate With Their Return to College

Melissa Torres and her husband Paul were both unemployed in the summer of 2012 when they found the Accelerate program.  Melissa lost her job working with a diabetes prevention program in June of 2011.  Paul, who worked as a drafter for an engineering firm and then an urban planning office for 11 years, lost his job in November of 2011.

The couple had been applying for work since they were laid off, but found that in each case they lost out to applicants with college degrees.  Melissa had started college in 1997, but dropped out in order to raise a family.  As the months wore on, they couldn’t decide whether to enroll in college and earn their degrees or to continue looking for work.

The decision was made when Melissa looked at the websites for the University of New Mexico – Los Alamos (UNM-LA) and Northern New Mexico College.  The couple resides in San Ildefonso Pueblo and both colleges were nearby.  Melissa noted that both participated in a program called Accelerate and she wanted to find out more.

The Technical Training and Job Placement program, known as Accelerate, focuses on transitional workers with retraining needs and non-traditional students enrolled in technical certificate and 2-year degree programs.  Accelerate offers an innovative approach to increase technical degree completion, professional readiness, and job placement.

Based on an email to Jackie La New, Accelerate’s Career Technical Advisor at UNM-LA, the couple enrolled in the college and in Accelerate in the summer of 2012.  They liked the idea of having a Career Technical Advisor to guide them and appreciated the stipends offered to attend professional readiness training.

According to Melissa, “Since being in the Accelerate program, we’ve realized it has helped us to be more focused on what we want and helped me to realize what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”  In addition, she says, “I have become much more assured in my abilities and that has allowed me to gain confidence in how to present myself”.

Melissa Torres graduated in May of 2013 with her Associate’s degree in Health Sciences and Paul will be graduating in 2014 with an Associate’s degree in Pre-Engineering.  Melissa currently works for the Pueblo of Tesuque Diabetes Program which is a community outreach program designed to prevent the onset of Type II Diabetes in Native Americans.

But graduation won’t mean the end to her education or her dreams to help her community with health-related issues.  In December of 2013 she plans to apply to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of New Mexico – Main Campus.  Her husband plans to apply to the Engineering program, specializing in Civil Engineering.

Melissa credits Accelerate with her return to school.  “The program was responsible for getting us back into college.  I hope that many others just like us who have lost jobs and are trying to decide if going back to school is right for them, will have the same opportunity”.

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Success Stories

Gregg Padilla Shines At Solar Company

Solar Company Provides Accelerate Student With Opportunity to Shine

Española resident Gregg Padilla left school to work construction in the ninth grade. Many years later he earned his GED, enrolled in Northern New Mexico College (NNMC), and recently earned his Associate’s degree in Pre-Engineering with a perfect GPA.

And, thanks to a program called Accelerate, along the way he acquired valuable professional readiness skills, chalked up some real-world experience, and was able to verify that he had chosen the correct field of study.

Accelerate focuses on transitional workers with retraining needs and non-traditional students enrolled in technical certificate and 2-year degree programs. The program offers an innovative approach to increase technical degree completion, professional readiness, and job placement, including the assistance of a Career Technical Advisor (CTA) who proactively coaches students to make sure they are progressing towards earning their degree.

Gregg is especially interested in working in the field of renewable energy because he is keenly aware that the nation and the world need to find alternative energy sources.  In January of 2013, Gregg participated in an Accelerate-paid Fellowship in Tucumcari, New Mexico with a solar engineering and design company.  Christy Dammen, his Accelerate CTA, helped him search and call different solar engineering companies to find one interested in working with him. Gregg found a perfect match with Robert Hockaday, President of Energy Related Devices in Tucumcari.

Gregg had always worked in the field and this was the first time he experienced working in an office environment.  During his Fellowship, Gregg studied the designs of solar panels and ways to make them more efficient.  He also used AutoCAD, a computer-aided design software tool he learned in school, to make site drawings for customers to help determine the best placement for their solar panels.

Gregg says the Fellowship showed him what mechanical engineers do in a real-world setting.  It also gave him a good overview of what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur and own your own company.  “Mr. Hockaday is an entrepreneur, a mechanical engineer, and an inventor. He works hard and it can be tough at times,” he says. “One of the most interesting parts of the Fellowship was when he taught me about patents and the process involved in applying for one.  Applying for a U.S. patent is one thing, but I found out it’s important to apply for international patents, too.”

Mr. Hockaday says “Gregg got the drawings and bill of materials together and was enthusiastic on the site visits. He also taught me some details about using AutoCAD.”

Gregg, who is continuing on at NNMC to earn his Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering in the fall of 2014, is currently working with his professors on a clean energy project. The project focuses on optimizing the efficiency of grid-tied Photo-Voltaic (PV) panels and battery storage units in order to offset the power produced by conventional power plants. In addition, Gregg also serves on the Board of Regents at Northern New Mexico College where he and his co-student representative, Lisa Salazar, act as facilitators for students who wish to address college policies. He is also President of the Northern Engineering Student Association.

Before college Gregg knew little about networking or writing a resume. According to Gregg, “Accelerate has given me the tools necessary to market myself professionally in my current and future employment endeavors.”

With degree-related experience and new confidence in his networking and job-readiness skills, there is no doubt that Gregg will be in hot demand when he starts his new career!

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UNM-LA Accelerate student Candida Frequez interviewed Gregg Padilla for this story in March of 2013 as part of her 100-hour marketing Fellowship with the Regional Development Corporation and paid for by Accelerate. Candida joined Accelerate in the fall of 2011 and is on target to earn her AAS in Digital Media Arts later this year. The story was written by Candida in collaboration with the Accelerate Program Manager.