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NMSU’s partnership program offers option for second degree

New Mexico State University’s partnership with the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy is adding a new benefit – the option to receive two college degrees instead of one. Starting this semester, students will have the opportunity to receive a bachelor’s degree from NMSU as well as a doctoral degree from UNM.

Man from waist up with arms crossed with shelves of medication behind him.
Robert Altamirano is the first graduate of the UNM/NMSU Cooperative Pharmacy Program. The program is now offering graduates the option to receive a bachelor’s degree from NMSU in addition to a doctorate from UNM. (NMSU photo by Rosemary Woller)

“The requirement that the last 30 credit hours of a degree be earned at NMSU has been waived for this program,” said Ken Van Winkle, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Students in the program now have the option to transfer credits earned at UNM back to NMSU in order to receive a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies in addition to their degree from UNM.”

The UNM/NMSU Cooperative Pharmacy Program in the College of Arts and Sciences began in 2006 with support from the New Mexico Legislature and a grant from UNM to fund administrative staff and scholarships. At least 10 students begin the program each year at NMSU and once they’ve earned 91 credit hours at the Las Cruces campus, they transfer into UNM’s College of Pharmacy for four years to complete a doctorate in pharmacy.

Van Winkle says it is too early to say how many students will select the option to earn the NMSU bachelor’s degree with their doctorate but he says it is a way to recognize pre-pharmacy students for the hard work they put in at NMSU.

The pre-pharmacy collaboration was designed to increase the number of pharmacy students from southern New Mexico and ultimately the number of pharmacists practicing in the region. Students selected for the program are seniors from high schools in 20 southern New Mexico counties.

“In its pilot year, there were three students. During those first two years, we went to every high school in southern New Mexico to find this select group of students,” said Amy Buesing, director of the program. “The word of mouth is out there and students are hearing about it and they want to be part of this unique program. There has been some attrition, but now we enroll a minimum of 10 new students each year and have enrolled as many as 14.”

UNM has the state’s only College of Pharmacy. It accepts 85-95 students into its program each year but sets aside 10 of those seats for NMSU students enrolled in the UNM/NMSU Cooperative Pharmacy Program. Currently, there are 59 NMSU students in the program, 21 are now at UNM and 13 will transfer there in the fall. Ten freshmen are scheduled to enter the program at NMSU in August.

Robert Altamirano is the program’s first graduate. He earned his doctorate at UNM in May of 2013. At 24 years old, he is back in Las Cruces as a pharmacist earning a six-figure salary at a local Walgreen’s.

“At times it hasn’t sunk in that I’m already a pharmacist,” Altamirano said. “I gave up a lot in college to get more now. I was studying and taking 19 credits a semester. Now I have the financial benefits from it.”

Five more students from the program will graduate with their doctorate from UNM College of Pharmacy in May. Buesing hopes others will follow Altamirano’s example and return to southern New Mexico where there is a shortage of pharmacists. There are a number of high-paying career opportunities for pharmacists beyond retail pharmacies, such as hospitals.

“This program provides opportunities for success that students in this region might not otherwise have,” Buesing said. “I like to think of this as economic development. I believe that over time the availability of more pharmacists wanting to live and work in southern New Mexico will create additional jobs.”

Altamirano is still contributing to NMSU’s pre-pharmacy program. He has a student shadowing him on the job now and he also advises students about what to expect when they transition from NMSU to UNM.

“Most subjects in undergraduate school don’t prepare you for graduate school, “ Altamirano said. “I think the 19 credits a semester I took in pre-pharmacy at NMSU prepared me for the work load up at UNM.”

“Our students are performing well in this program,” said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “UNM appreciates these students because they are so well prepared for the rigorous coursework. It is not easy, but thanks to Amy and her staff, these students are gaining the skills they need to enter UNM’s College of Pharmacy and succeed.”

The program not only prepares NMSU students academically but it also helps them develop leadership skills important to their careers and interaction with the public.

As a practicing pharmacist, Altamirano knows firsthand just how much the program is needed.

“There is still a shortage of pharmacists in the area and we need to keep this program going,” he said. “I always wanted to stay in Las Cruces. I think the goal of most people is they want to come home.”

Although the new bachelor’s degree option doesn’t apply to him, Altamirano says if he could have earned an NMSU degree and walked across the stage at commencement in Las Cruces, he would have liked to do it for his family.

More information about the UNM/NMSU Cooperative Pharmacy program is available at http://cpp.nmsu.edu/ .