Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
ALBUQUERQUE - Starting next year, northern New Mexico residents will no longer have to leave their homes and families to pursue professional careers in the tourism industry.
For the first time, New Mexico State University will offer bachelor's degrees in hotel, restaurant and tourism management via distance education thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NMSU will partner with Northern New Mexico College in Espaņola to offer degrees online, said Janet Green, director of NMSU's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.
"Much of the tourism industry is concentrated in the north, but until now there's been no hospitality program available for local residents to earn professional degrees without moving to Las Cruces or out of state," Green said. "Students and industry operators always ask when a distance education program will be available. Now we have the resources to do it."
The grant, approved through the USDA's Hispanic Serving Institutions Program, will particularly benefit Hispanic communities, said Carmen Gonzales, NMSU vice provost for distance education and dean of the College of Extended Learning.
"The program will serve counties with large Hispanics populations," Gonzales said. "This is a joint effort by two Hispanic-serving institutions to provide more educational opportunities. It will help students pursue high-paying careers in hospitality without having to leave their hometowns."
About 73 percent of the population in Rio Arriba County is Hispanic, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Hispanics make up about 76 percent of the 2,300 students enrolled at NNMC.
"Many of our students are Hispanics who come from small rural communities," said NNMC President Jose Griego. "Some travel from as far as 90 miles away, and most of them are adults with families and jobs. Distance education programs are essential for them because their geographic isolation makes it difficult to earn a college degree."
Industry leaders are enthusiastic because they often have to hire managers from out of state, said Art Bouffard, president of the New Mexico Lodging Association.
"The problem in New Mexico, especially in the north, is that students have to go to Las Cruces or other states to get a degree in hospitality and few are willing to do that," Bouffard said. "That means we have to hire people from out of state, particularly in the peak tourism season when we're always short of staff. By providing degrees through distance education, NMSU can fill an educational void and open up tremendous career opportunities for local youth."
NMSU is currently the only four-year university in New Mexico and West Texas that offers a bachelor's degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. The school is now at record enrollment with 340 students, about 42 percent of whom are Hispanic, Green said.
The school trains students to be managers in the hotel, restaurant and tourism fields, and it has a 95 percent placement rate for graduates, said HRTM associate professor Priscilla Bloomquist. Courses include hospitality accounting, marketing, finance, law and human resources.
"The USDA grant will allow us to convert all the required and elective classes to a distance education format using online, Web-based courses and videoconferencing at the NNMC campus in Espaņola," Bloomquist said. "Students can apply their credits from NNMC to a four-year degree in HRTM."
NMSU will convert 17 classes to an online format over three years. The first classes will be available this spring, Bloomquist said. Starting in fall 2006, NMSU will begin offering HRTM courses through its distance education program statewide.
NMSU will train faculty to teach effectively online, Gonzales said.
"When teaching face to face, professors can easily monitor student progress, but they need to learn new ways to communicate with students online," Gonzales said.
To help NNMC students succeed, faculty will promote classmate mentoring and minority-oriented retention techniques, such as encouraging students to cluster together, Gonzales said.
"We'll form groups of up to 25 students to meet at the Espaņola campus," Gonzales said. "Success rates are greater when students progress together."
In addition, professors will occasionally travel to Espaņola to teach classes and offer direct support to students, Gonzales said.
Charlie Gray, president of the Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association and general manager at the Sheraton Uptown, said the new program could significantly change local hiring practices.
"It takes a lot of talent to manage hotels," Gray said. "We desperately need a local pool of well-trained professionals. I think this will open up career doors for many people who either can't or don't want to go to Las Cruces to study."
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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