Focus on Faces

Vera Gilleland

Vera Gilleland photo 2/27/2007 8:43:34 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. New Mexico Junior College's Director of Talent Search Vera Gilleland personifies the saying that 'a little help goes a long way' as she recently celebrated her 20th anniversary of involvement in the TRIO Programs.

Twenty years ago, Gilleland found herself a newly divorced single parent and the sole supporter for her two boys. She was determined that the only way for her to support her children alone was to go back to college. However, being a single parent, the financial ability to pay for college was non-existent.

Gilleland began asking co-workers if they knew of any help for financial assistance to attend college. "A co-worker mentioned that there was federal funding available. All I needed to do was take my income taxes to this office downtown, and they could help me pay for college," Gilleland explains. "That is how I first became involved with the TRIO Program. I utilized their services as a student, and it's been in my blood ever since."

The Federal TRIO Programs are educational opportunity outreach programs designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The term "TRIO" was coined in the 1970's for the first three programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services. TRIO has evolved since its first inception in 1964 to include Educational Outreach Centers, McNair, and other support programs in every state across the nation, targeted to serve and assist low-income, first-generation college students, or students with disabilities, helping them progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post baccalaureate programs.

As Gilleland began attending college in 1987, she quickly found herself as a mentor to other students because of her age. Gilleland explains, "Twenty years ago, it was not common for non-traditional students to attend college. The majority of the students were traditional age, so they turned to me for guidance because I'd experienced life already." Gilleland had a friend who worked in the school's Student Support Services (SSS) Department, a TRIO program, who helped her become a student tutor for SSS.

Gilleland, a first-generation graduate, received her Bachelor of Social Work in 1993 from the University of Texas at El Paso, and was hired by El Paso Community College as an Academic Advisor in the SSS Department. Gilleland immediately began working on her master's degree while continuing her work with SSS.

In Gilleland's tenure at EPCC, the SSS participation grew by over 200 students. "A driving force for me was, and still is, that I was always so grateful for the help I'd received. If I hadn't received help, I don't know how far my will power or dedication would have taken me," describes Gilleland about the concept of being a TRIO alumnus and how it has prompted her to continue her work within the TRIO programs.

In 1998, Gilleland applied for the Director of Talent Search, another TRIO program, at NMJC. Through NMJC's Talent Search Program, Gilleland's work focuses on 6th - 12th graders of Lea County, in which 2/3 of those students are designated low income and first-generation college hopefuls.

Currently, Gilleland serves over 700 students and their families through the TRIO program. "We focus on personal growth and careers. We help the students improve on their academic skills. We hold career days in which the students can discover future interests. We hold a summer camp that incorporates cultural activities. We elaborate on the summer camp by taking whole families on a cultural field trip that they might not otherwise experience," mentions Gilleland about a few features of NMJC's TRIO Program.

"Of all my experiences in the TRIO Programs, my fondest accomplishment is raising my two boys with strong values, character, compassion for others, and the desire to be involved. Because of me being a single mom and having experienced first hand what the families I work with experience, it makes what I do that much more gratifying. I love being in Talent Search because I'm at the beginning of all the TRIO programs where the students need the most guidance," describes Gilleland about her role.

Gilleland pays forward what was given to her: a little help that has gone a long way. She explains, "It's all about the children and about giving them opportunities to fuel their motivation to realize their dreams."

February marks National TRIO month. For more information about NMJC's TRIO Programs, call (575) 492-2615.

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