Education is at Heart of Community’s Identity … UNM-Los Alamos is Our College

At last year’s candidate’s forum, Michelle Hall discussed her desire to help steer UNM-LA through challenging times. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Education is at Heart of Community’s Identity … UNM-Los Alamos is Our College
“I have not met more dedicated faculty and staff at any University than UNM-Los Alamos.” -Michelle Hall
Los Alamos Daily Post

Michelle Hall recalled one thing that really impressed her about Los Alamos when she moved here in 2003 – the community’s commitment to providing the highest quality education.

“The other thing that impressed me was that we are a highly self-sufficient community,” she said. “We generally do not need to leave town to get the things we need and that includes going to college. These are what make Los Alamos one of the topmost desirable counties in the U.S. The community was ideal for me to start my small business in science education.

In the mid-2000’s, UNM-Los Alamos was examining its science, technology, engineering, and math degree programs to better align them with workforce needs in northern New Mexico and especially with Los Alamos National Laboratory. They organized some meetings and brought in a cross section of experts from the community to provide input on future directions.

Hall was invited based on her prior work at the University of Arizona developing introductory level science courses and textbooks. It was a lively group that met over several months to provide guidance, she said, adding that she felt that her time was well spent, as the faculty and staff seemed deeply committed to offering the best quality experiences to their students.

A year or two later, Drs. Kate Massengale and Irina Alvestad contacted Hall. They had made progress in building a foundation for the Advanced Engineering Technician degree program and wanted to make it state of the art. 

“They asked me to help them develop a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to acquire new laboratory equipment, revamp some courses, and to provide services that would improve student success,” Hall said. “Over the next six months, we met weekly and I coached them on proposal writing. In the process, they decided to also seek NSF funding to bolster their cyber security program. LANL hires cyber-security staff with associates through Ph.D. degrees, so this was a really exciting area to strengthen their degree offerings. In both the engineering and cyber-security programs, students can get an associates degree and find employment locally, then often continue on at UNM-Los Alamos to get a Bachelor’s degree through the UNM Extended University.

Surprisingly, both NSF proposals were funded, which is almost unheard of for a two-year school that has never before submitted a proposal to NSF. Their funding rates are typically less than 20 percent. The proposals were sound and clearly conveyed the culture of success that the UNM-Los Alamos faculty instills in their students, she said.

Michelle Hall, left, with her husband Terry Wallace and his sister Janice Wallace Parra last year during the dedication of the new Jeannette O. Wallace Hall on the UNM-LA campus. Photo by Carol A. Clark/

Last September, Hall was invited to learn about the mil levy proposal the local college is requesting.

“I am not one to jump on board for raising taxes, but by the end of the hour meeting, I felt that I had no choice but to become vocal about the critical needs of our college just to maintain its stature and the impressive track record of accomplishments,” she said. “So, I ran for and was elected to the Advisory Board, which has enabled me to learn more about the college and help steer it through these very challenging times.

Hall is a geophysicist and science educator who has worked in both industry and academia. She is president of Science Education Solutions, Inc., a small research and development company invested in promoting science and technology literacy.

“Being on the Advisory Board has been very educational and time consuming,” Hall said. “But, it has also restored in me a belief in higher education as a life changing opportunity. As a professor at the University of Arizona, some 65 percent of the freshman quit by the end of their first year. Many who stayed on for their sophomore year did not know what they wanted to do and mainly floundered in the system. Only the exceptional students got the faculty attention to really help them excel.

In contrast, at UNM-Los Alamos, students enrolled full time in associate degree programs have the highest graduation rate (>65 percent) of any two-year college in New Mexico, Hall said. The next closest campus has a 21 percent graduation rate. Engineering transfer students actually see their grade point rise when attending UNM – Main Campus. Nationally, students transferring from a 2- to a 4-year campus see their grade point drop a full point.

“One might imagine that this is because our college attracts stronger students to begin with,” she said. “But, 70 percent of the LAHS graduates attending UNM-Los Alamos have deficiencies that they must make up before entering college level courses.

This level of degree completion can only happen when you have staff and faculty dedicated to ensuring high quality programs and paying attention to the individual success of their students. The courses are rigorous, but the teaching is solid, and critical student support is available, allowing struggling students to gain the knowledge needed for success.

“Education is at the heart of this community’s identity. UNM-Los Alamos is our college and provides a cornerstone for the community,” Hall said. “Over 150 Los Alamos High School students take courses at UNM-LA each year at no cost, helping them get a leg up on college. Recent data on college loan debt indicates it is quickly moving to surpass household debt in the U.S. This is not sustainable. While some in our community can afford to take on that debt, more cannot and should not.

UNM-Los Alamos is one of the most affordable college experiences in New Mexico, she said, yet, state support for it has dropped ~40 percent since 2008. Tuition increases have been small but regular; still they cannot make up for lost state revenue. She explained that passing the mil levy this September is “critical for UNM-Los Alamos’ continued operation and ability to grow and support our community’s needs and interests.

“With mil levy funds, we will be able to offer more associate degree options. And through creative partnerships with UNM Extended University that are supported with mil levy funds, we will be able to offer access to more bachelor degree programs in our community, ensuring that our young people can stay in our community for their education,” she said.

Hall said that she has not met more dedicated faculty and staff at any university than UNM-Los Alamos.

“I am thankful to be a member of the Advisory Board as it has been a great growth and learning experience. I am and will continue to work hard to ensure our tax dollars are wisely spent and meet the broad needs of our community,” Hall said.

The UNM-LA special all mail election is Sept. 17. Voter registration for this election closes at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20. Residents who are not registered, or have moved, need to fill out a Voter Registration form at the County Clerk’s Office, 1000 Central Ave., Suite 240, in the Los Alamos County Municipal Building. Anyone needing a ballot mailed to an alternate mailing address may request that by filling out an Alternate Address form and returning it to the County Clerk’s Office no later than 5 p.m. Aug. 20. Ballots will be mailed out to all registered voters Tuesday, Aug. 27. Ballots must be physically received in the County Clerk’s Office by 7 p.m. Election Day, Tuesday, Sept. 17 to be counted. Postmarked envelopes do not count.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the people behind the scenes at UNM-LA.

LOS ALAMOS website support locally by OviNuppi Systems