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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Helping hand makes the difference for DACC, NMSU students

A little help can go a long way in providing an opportunity for those who otherwise might not succeed, and one family’s commitment to New Mexico State University has provided that help not just once, but hundreds of times over more than a decade.

Woman in a discussion.
NMSU alumna and current graduate student Vanessa Mendez chats with a student in her office at NMSU, where she is employed as a program adviser and graduate teaching assistant in the Communication Studies department. Mendez received financial aid from the Wolslager Foundation while an undergraduate student.
Woman in a classroom.
NMSU alumna Sarah Keesling teaches an algebra class at Onate High School in Las Cruces where she is employed as a special education teacher. Keeling received financial aid from the Wolslager Foundation while a student at DACC and NMSU.

Since 2002, the Wolslager Foundation has supported non-traditional students through scholarships at Doña Ana Community College and NMSU. During that time, more than $2.29 million has been provided for students who might not have made the commitment to transformative higher education without it.

A special recognition breakfast to honor the Wolslager family and Stephen J. Wolslager, president of the foundation, will take place from 8-9:15 a.m. Thursday, April 21, at the 3rd Floor Bistro in the Stan Fulton Center.

The scholarships were available to full-time students at DACC and NMSU students who transferred from DACC to complete their undergraduate work, and the results were often life-changing.

“I can tell you that at the time I was going to school, my husband and I were both working part-time, minimum wage jobs with three small kids to support and the thought of dropping out to get a full-time job was always on my mind, especially since we were both in school,” said scholarship recipient Sarah Keesling. “Had it not been for scholarships, I would have never been able to finish school. I was debating whether to even finish my associate degree, but because of scholarships, I was able to get through, and now I have a master’s degree in special education.”

Keesling is now a math teacher at Oñate High School in Las Cruces working with students who have disabilities.

“I am grateful every day to have been given the opportunity to go to school,” Keesling said.

For Vanessa Mendez, currently a graduate teaching assistant in NMSU’s Department of Communication Studies, the scholarship came as a boost to her confidence at just the right time.

Mendez started at DACC as a first-generation student. There, she received excellent support and guidance, became involved in student government and earned an associate’s degree.

The next step, though, was not as clear to Mendez. When she was finished at DACC, she was concerned about how she was going to navigate in a four-year university setting at NMSU and was especially concerned about going into debt to pursue a degree.

“I was not even convinced I would be able to succeed, having been the first generation in my family to pursue higher education,” Mendez said. “The scholarship provided me with a sense of accountability, as someone saw the potential in me that I was not sure I fully saw within myself. The scholarship was the reassurance I needed to get to realize that it was possible. They believed in me.”

Mendez was given the opportunity to earn a second bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2013 as she studied abroad for a year: six months in Spain and six months in South America, where she was able to give back in a volunteer internship position working with underprivileged children.

The campus TRIO program also was a great help to Mendez, who is on track to earn a master’s degree in May.

“NMSU has been good to me,” she said.

The foundation also funded STEM initiatives, including the Science Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy or SEMAA, a partnership between the NMSU colleges of Education and Engineering. NMSU has been able to engage public school students in southern New Mexico in the fields of science, engineering, mathematics and technology.

The foundation made a difference in the lives of students in the NMSU College of Engineering summer PREP program. The Pre Freshman Engineering Program is an academically intensive six-week summer program for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders that includes hands-on laboratory experiments and projects such as building robots and rockets.

The Wolslager Foundation was established to improve the quality of life for individuals in the area where J.W. and the late Josephine S. Wolslager previously owned and operated their Coca-Cola bottling franchises, which included Coca-Cola Bottling of Las Cruces and Magnolia Coca-Cola Bottling in El Paso. This goal has been met by the foundation, providing support for educational opportunities including scholarships, improving and expanding medical facilities and health services, and supporting programs and projects that facilitate development of children and youth, as well as services beneficial to elderly citizens. Since 1996, the Wolslager Foundation has distributed more than $44 million to more than 190 nonprofit organizations in southeastern Arizona, south-central New Mexico and West Texas.

“Almost all of our scholarship recipients are the first in their families to obtain an advanced degree,” said Wolslager, the grandson of J.W. and Josephine Wolslager. “They are typically older than the average college student and the majority of them work at least part time, if not full time, in addition to taking a full course load. Many of them are also parents, which is profound in that they are setting an incredible example for their children to follow.”

According to Wolslager, the NMSU Foundation has received almost half of the Wolslager Foundation’s distributions made in New Mexico and was the third largest beneficiary of the foundation’s funding as a whole.

“My grandparents believed that the best way to help someone realize their full potential was through education, which enables them to develop interests and skills that will ultimately allow them and their families to have a better life,” he said.

Unlike most foundations, which are set up to operate in perpetuity, it was decided that the Wolslager Foundation would spend down its assets within a specific time frame. In December 2013, the foundation made its last regular grant distribution.

“The founders of the foundation believed that the problems that currently exist in our society would only worsen over time unless a great deal of progress was made in addressing them within this generation,” Wolslager said. “Thus, it was decided that by accelerating the foundation’s payout in order to significantly increase the amount of resources available to the local nonprofit community, it would allow them to make a greater impact on finding solutions today, rather than tomorrow.”

For Mendez, the scholarship not only opened doors of opportunity, it also served as an inspiration for her to help others.

“There’s a lot of meaning in what they do for us,” Mendez said. “I would want the Wolslager family to know that their confidence and investment in us can change our world dramatically.”

As a first-generation college student, Mendez said, “it makes a world of difference knowing someone is willing to invest in someone like me … for them to help others and bless others and they don’t even know you.

“It inspires me as a Christian to be a blessing to others as well, to inspire others and to believe in others as they did in me,” she said.